Tick, Tick… BOOM! Review

Aspiring composer Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) is struggling to stage his rock opera Superbia. He needs a new song for the second act, his girlfriend Sarah (Alexandra Shipp) is about to relocate and — worst of all — he is about to turn 30.

by Ian Freer |
Updated on
Release Date:

12 Nov 2021

Original Title:

tick, tick… BOOM!

If you are one of those people for whom musical theatre brings you out in hives, Tick, Tick… Boom! won’t win you over. Based on the Jonathan Larson musical about his own early song-writing struggles (he hit the big time with Rent), Hamilton maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is chock-full of things to set the show tunes haters’ teeth on edge (impromptu a cappella singing, for starters), but gets by on a deep well of love for musicals, some good songs and a more successful turn to the dark side in its final act.

Adapted by Dear Evan Hansen scribe Steven Levenson, Tick, Tick… Boom! flits between Larson (Andrew Garfield) on stage at a piano, relating his life accompanied by a small band with two singers (Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry), and real-world sections dramatising his problems. Chief among them is that it is 1990 and he is about to turn 30 — the title refers to the ticking clock — and he is yet to experience the theatrical breakthrough of his idol Stephen Sondheim. His newest work Superbia, a dystopian rock musical about a poisoned planet (Greta Thunberg would stan), is heading into a rehearsal workshop before an industry showcase. Jon still hasn’t been able to write a killer song for the second act. Where will the inspiration come from?


As movie predicaments go, these are some hard-to-invest-in uptown problems. It also contains some cringeworthy depictions of the creative act, so on-the-nose light bulbs might as well appear above Larson’s head. More affecting is the way his musical obsessions are alienating the people in his life — specifically girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), who has got a new job in the Berkshires (New York, not Home Counties) and wants an answer as to whether Jon will join her and childhood friend Michael (Robin de Jesús), who relinquished his own acting dreams and wants Jon to get real about his musical aspirations.

The film finds moving emotional notes without being mawkish.

As you’d expect from its creators, Tick, Tick… Boom! courses with a love of musical theatre, from nods and winks to Broadway history to a terrific, uncanny cameo from Bradley Whitford as Sondheim. Some of the songs also come off smartly. ‘Boho Days’, an ode to living in New York’s arty sector driven by rhythmic clapping, sounds irritating as hell but is actually very winning. ‘Why’ is a lovely ode to friendship built on a passion for music. Others — such as ‘Sunday’, a hymn to people who overspend on weekend brunch — do little to move the story on and often fall into the trap of samey, piano-driven rock tunes (Larson lacks Miranda’s dizzying wordplay). The score isn’t helped by Miranda, whose direction, while always proficient — ‘No More’, Mike’s ditty about living in a posh apartment, is his most ambitious sequence, cross-cutting between skanky tenement buildings and parquet-floored apartments — rarely finds cinematic ways to make them soar.

Always a likeable actor, Garfield — courageously sporting Larson’s ridiculous hair-style that gets a call-out in the script — gets Larson’s self-absorption but doesn’t really add other colours until the film takes a more serious turn in the final third. It’s here where we feel the weight of Jon’s relationships — Shipp and de Jesús make for engaging foils; you feel for them — and the film finds moving emotional notes without being mawkish. Perhaps the last act suggests if he moves away from his musical wheelhouse, Miranda might have a strong dramatic filmmaker hidden within.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is an affectionate, if flawed, Valentine to both musical theatre and the art of creativity — some bum notes, some strong moments. Tick, tick… the jury’s out.
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