Andrew Garfield and Lin-Manuel Miranda Sing Jonathan Larson’s Story on Netflix
DIRECTOR: LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA/2021
2021 a great year at the movies if you’re a fan of Andrew Garfield, Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Stephen Sondheim tributes. If you’re a fan of all three, tick, tick…BOOM! was tailor-made for you.
Garfield plays Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent. When we meet him in 1990, he’s still working at the Moondance Diner just trying to pay his rent. Days from his 30th birthday, he’s edging toward a quarter-life crisis because he hasn’t realized his ambition of creating musical theater. He’s also days from presenting a years-long project to an audience for the first time, his best friend and roommate (Robin de Jesus) is moving out, and his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) is considering a job out of the city. So then again, his emotional breakdown might be stemming from more than Manhattan’s high cost of living.
We watch Jonathan’s life at two moments: a performance of tick, tick…BOOM! and the week of his life that inspired the show. As an audience, we know he will make his place in Broadway history, but both versions of him we meet are still dreaming. In “No More,” he sings of his financial woes; “Johnny Can’t Decide” explores his failures toward his friends; and “Therapy” deals with his trouble with commitment. We’re listening to his anxieties, insecurities, and near-existential collapse, not his legacy.
Full disclosure: I have never seen Rent on stage or screen. If you’re a super fan of that musical, well, I have no insight on how this connects with one of Broadway’s longest-running shows (other than, of course, its author clearly had trouble paying for housing.) For those who have not seen Rent either, don’t worry—this is a standalone work requiring no knowledge of Larson or the show. If he’d never made that hit, tick, tick…BOOM! would be just as moving, and Garfield would be just as irresistible.
Garfield’s Jonathan is all sincerity. He practices embellished salesmanship when hustling for his art, but he never practices irony or performance. Another version of this character would be an antihero, petty because he blows off his friends and self-important because he worries a lot about aging. But thanks to an earnest, vulnerable Garfield, we fall in love with him like his friends, and we root for his success like Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford). He authenticates every big emotion and roots Jonathan’s flaws in the excess of his virtues.
Tick, tick…BOOM! is an exploration of the creative process as much as Jonathan’s relationships, and who better than creative genius Lin-Manuel Miranda to explain it? His directing debut is as stunning as Garfield’s performance. No one would doubt his music or character work at this point, but who knew his visions would translate so well to film? This is not theater on camera—it’s true adaptation with editing so complex and pacing so cinematic I have no clue how it ever played on stage. The film explores how artists work, how they survive in a society not built to support them, and their internal conflicts about selling out. Somehow none of those themes get the shaft in development.
Much of that development comes in the small moments: a Larson critic (Richard Kind) trying to impress Sondheim, Jonathan’s notebook scribbles, his inspiration while swimming, a slimy marketing research brainstorm session, the voices of supporting cast members like Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens. (Can we get those OG High School Musical kids back in musicals full-time?) It’s also the little moments that affirm this musical is tailor-made for this Taylor. I’m a former swimmer with a marketing day job who pursues writing in her free time. And scenes in The Strand bookstore and a song about brunch? That’s just dramatizing my ideal weekend. But mostly, it taps a spigot into the I’m-months-from-turning-30-and-what-have-I-actually-done-with-my-life anxiety I’ve been doing my best to ignore.
Tick, tick…BOOM! is a memoir for artistic people, and a it’s a love letter to musical theater. It’s a tribute to the kindness of Stephen Sondheim, and it’s a retrospective on an artist and friend lost too soon. It’s also an encouragement for anyone trying to find their purpose and anyone who needs help processing their anxieties about their future. Something tells me that in 2021, this film was tailor-made for more than just this Taylor.