Your musical theater tastes are all but defined by when you were first introduced. It doesn’t mean that you can’t shift or grow in tastes, but there certainly comes a heavy influence or leaning based upon your start. While I, myself, am a theater-adjacent kid (have all the passion, but lack the talent or gumption), my favorites lean toward Wasserman and Leigh’s Man of La Mancha (1965) or Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey’s The Music Man (1962), both of which are thanks to my mother’s influence. Me, I took that and carried it with me into my love of storytelling and then writing. But what happens when a budding playwright crosses paths with one in practice? That’s a different kind of influence, one which is as likely to inspire a new Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) or a Lin-Manuel Miranda (In The Heights; Hamilton). It seems fitting then that Miranda himself would shift from writer/playwright/actor and into the director’s chair to adapt a musical from one of his heroes, tick, tick…BOOM! by Jonathan Larson. The result is a film which is at once a tribute to a beloved playwright and a love-letter to the craft and industry they’ve each made an indelible mark upon.
In two weeks, Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) will be presenting his long-workshopped musical production Superbia, but it’s not quite finished yet as there’s a song still missing from Act 2 which will define the play. As if that isn’t enough, his best friend/roommate Michael (Robin de Jesús) is moving out, his co-worker/friend Freddy (Ben Levi Ross) is sick, and his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), is contemplating moving to Berkshire, NY. With the imminent arrival of his 30th birthday and the infinite possibilities that he feels he’s on the cusp of, Jonathan contends with pressure of trying to achieve everything he’s dreamed of while maintaining the relationships which keep him from untethering entirely.
As tick, tick…BOOM! opens, the audience is informed, via a voice-over from Susan, that what you’re about to see is all true except for the part that Jonathan made up. This is a perfectly charming way to set the stage for what follows as Manuel integrates the staged version of Larson’s play with more traditional narrative aspects. From start to finish, Manuel jumps between Garfield as Larson on stage with a minimal set (musicians and their equipment) and Garfield as Larson in his real life. This enables the music to flow naturally from one number to another, while also adding some depth to the traditional aspects that might be clunkier otherwise. That’s the beauty of musicals, really. It would be awkward to have someone tell you how they’re feeling as they run, rapidly breathing in the cold January night air, whereas, in a play, a narration or song helps cut through interference straight to the heart of the matter. The parallel storytelling device not only allows Manuel to tap into the wonder of musical theater, he joins it with traditional storytelling to create something greater and more inviting than either would be on their own; especially when one considers the minimal setting of the staged element. It’s also fairly acceptable for musicals to be a little more larger than life, enabling them to take the already strong emotions born out of frustration, love, anger, joy, or desperation, and amplify them. Tip of the hat to cinematographer Alice Brooks (In the Heights) who utilized two very different camera techniques when capturing each world of the story. The staged setting was shot with handhelds, which generates the low lighting and intimate feel of being in a black box, while the rest of the film was shot with a Steadicam, offering a feeling that’s more grounded, even in the more fantastical moments of Jonathan’s imagination. This is why that caution at the start matters so much: what you see is a version of the play created from real events from the perspective of an enormous fan. What’s worth applauding here is that Manuel, while not inexperienced in filmmaking, possesses a voice all his own and none of that is present here. So if your introduction to his work is Hamilton or the recently released theatrical version of In the Heights, that rhythm, that timber, that rat-a-tat-tat is absent, fully committed instead to Larson’s. Perhaps thanks to Manuel’s own love of theater, BOOM! never comes across as pretending or imitating, but as a tribute to both Larson and theater itself. If anyone was going to understand writing like you’re running out of time, it would be Manuel.
Even if Netflix hasn’t specifically requested that reviews avoid spoilers, there’s no way anything I’d write would get so detailed as to ruin the many surprises that reside within tick, tick…BOOM!, but there are surprises that theater fans will take quite a bit of delight in. Given that BOOM! was written just ahead of Rent and that some of the events in Larson’s life that inspired that play take place within this one, there are some obvious things that will immediately make anyone familiar with say, “Light My Candle,” to giggle when the power goes out. Or smile a tad when a song includes a group singing in unison “la vie Boeheme!,” but BOOM! isn’t merely a vessel for insiders, it’s a welcoming and warm, sorrowful and commiseratory tale that those familiar with Larson’s work will enjoy tasty nuggets of familiarity, while those (such as myself) still have something to grab hold off. Even more so, being that the film is directed by Manuel, a man who’s mantra seems to be “As long as I got a job, you got a job” to everyone he loves and works with, well, Manuel doesn’t throw away his shot. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this cast features quite a few former stage performers like de Jesús (In the Heights), Vanessa Hudgens (Rent), Joshua Henry (Hamilton), Mj Rodriguez (Rent), or Tony-winning actor Judith Light (Other Desert Cities) making up the central cast. It’s something that only a true creative and patron of the arts can and does do without tarnishing the integrity of the product. Where some directors might place their vision first, Manuel understands that, from Larson’s perspective, art is what matters and what should be valued, and therefore places that first. At one point in the film (shown in the trailer), Michael asks Jonathan if he’s working from a place of love or fear. Manuel has chosen love and it radiates in every scene.
There are, however, some pitfalls which the film falls into, likely as a result of translating the play from stage to screen *or* perhaps because the source material does the same. In the narrative, Susan is little more than a prop for Jonathan in her depiction. She very much has her own life and desires, the film even makes time to showcase how she’s her own person with her own conflicts, but the film never takes her beyond where she enters or exits from Jonathan’s life during this two-week period. Similarly, Michael quickly falls into the gay best friend trope, there as a support system for our protagonist and little else. There are moments where the play seems to acknowledge this, but it’s a little too late in the story where the audience may have made up their mind regarding Jonathan to turn back. Thankfully, Garfield is so damn charming as Jonathan that you’d forgive him the world if he turned up sopping wet on your doorstep after being the world’s biggest self-involved jackass. These elements, combined with certain characters — like Hudgens’s Karessa, Joshua Henry’s Roger, Rodriguez’s Carolyn, and Ross’s Freddy — getting plenty of time to shine without any development at all, well, it starts to leave a nasty taste in the mouth. It may be fair to say that BOOM! presents Jonathan as a driven individual who’s biggest flaw is his desire to succeed and it’s this experience, this failing at being too human and not enough at once, that gives birth to Rent. But there’ve been so many stories centered on turbulent white creatives that it doesn’t come across now in the way perhaps Manuel, or even Larson himself, intended.
All of that said, when the credits rolled, I was in tears. Honestly, I had been for much of tick, tick…BOOM!. I came to this story knowing the director, the cast, and the tiniest of bits regarding the adaptation process. I didn’t know the songs or conceit and, yet, from the first few bars of opening number “30/90,” I was tapping my toe to the rhythm while my heart connected with the words. I’m 41 in little more than a month, working on my sixth career change, wondering what kind of difference, if any, or what kind of mark I’ll leave on the world. These songs immediately clicked, conveyed by performances, especially Garfield’s, that tore me apart. You can certainly recognize the immense talent of Shipp, Hudgens, Henry, de Jesús, and more, but it’s a story that is much like Larson’s Rent or Manuel’s Hamilton in that it’s relevancy of message transcends time and location. That Manuel, on his first time in the director’s chair, can present a film which is so gripping from the jump his first time out speaks not only to his ability to tell stories and to understand rhythms, but to shed his own voice when presenting others.
In select theaters November 12th, 2021.
Available for streaming on Netflix November 19th, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.