Review: TICK, TICK... BOOM! Drags, But Is Effective

Added Moments and Music Stall the Plot, But the Emotional Peaks and Valleys Work

By: Nov. 16, 2021
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Review: TICK, TICK... BOOM! Drags, But Is Effective

Written by Jonathan Larson, the theater composer and lyricist made infamous with RENT, the film adaptation of TICK, TICK... BOOM! is sure to garner a lot of attention. The stage version is a rollicking, urgent three-person chamber musical that flies by in a tight 90 minutes. The film is expanded to 115 minutes and suffers a bit under the weight of that bloat. The emotional peaks and valleys all work, but there are moments where the plot drags.

Making his film directorial debut, composer, lyricist, and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda showcases skill for telling a story on film. Having performed the role of Jon in New York City Center's 2014 production of TICK, TICK... BOOM! and notably having his own Broadway debut, IN THE HEIGHTS, inspired by Larson's RENT, Miranda is the obvious choice for helming this project. His reverence and respect for the subject and material is always apparent. The film celebrates every step of Jon's journey and shines as an absolute love letter to the creation of musical theater and the community of artists that keep the industry alive. One only needs to count the cameos in the "Sunday" scene to appreciate Miranda's ode of admiration.

Steven Levenson's screenplay has expanded Larson's show. Instead of being a straightforward story of a man turning 30 in 1990 while besieged by the challenges of maintaining his romantic relationship and best friendship all at odds with devoting himself to the high-profile workshop the musical he has spent the last eight years writing, we now get the plot of the stage musical as flashbacks within a fictional performance of TICK, TICK... BOOM! as a rock monologue at New York Theatre Workshop (obviously inspired by Larson's 1990 workshop performances of his rock monologue BOHO DAYS at Second Stage Theater). Levenson's expansion increases the size of the cast, adds more scenes and dialogue, includes music originally featured in the rock monologue but cut from the three-hander stage presentation overseen by Victoria Leacock and Robyn Goodman, with retooling by Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Auburn. While Auburn and company made the fear of running out of time the driving force of the stage performance, the film sometimes forgets that it's telling that story as it spins out beyond the source material.

Review: TICK, TICK... BOOM! Drags, But Is Effective
Andrew Garfield in Tick, Tick... Boom! (2021)

Musical fans all know that this mostly autobiographical depiction of Jonatahn Larson will tragically die of an aortic aneurysm hours before seeing what will become his magnum opus open to public performances, so his greatest fear of running out of time absolutely will happen. Yet, it seems that the creative decision to further explore the musical creation process in a way that demands audiences and the characters in Jon's life to simply accept his selfishness without apology in his pursuit of creating meaningful art through the expansion of the plot was seen as essential over keeping audiences on baited breath as we approach the inevitable boom at the end of the piece. The film is roughly 25 minutes (and that includes the credits scroll) longer than the stage production, but the payoff of these additions is limited. Sure, it's nice to hear songs like "Play Game" and "Swimming," but seeing them in the film also makes it clear why Auburn cut them. They, like the scene where Jon yells at the electric company over the phone for cutting his power, aren't needed. They only serve as fan service to Larson by exposing audiences to music of his that most haven't heard or projecting a musical style or even a plot point later seen in RENT into the consciousness of audiences. Ultimately, this kills the sense of urgency and causes the film to drag.

Luckily, the expansions don't totally mar the film. The earnest performances by the more than capable cast ensures that TICK, TICK... BOOM! works. Andrew Garfield has clearly studied all the existing archival footage of Larson. His hair, makeup, and costuming make him look like a carbon copy of Larson, and he emotes in book scenes and musical moments with deft precision. The limited theatrical engagement of the film bodes well, as Garfield will likely earn some well-deserved award nominations for this stirring and captivating performance. Alexandra Shipp's Susan is all wide-eyes, beauty, and grace. She breathes life into the woman who is torn between her love of dancing and the career opportunities it brings her and her desire to be with Jonathan. Her singing, the limited amount of it we get in this version of the musical, is spot on; however, Vanessa Hudgens' Karessa outshines her, especially in "Come to Your Senses." Robin de Jesus' Michael is the emotional center of the film, and his heartfelt performance is riveting and tear inducing. As a fan of the material, I eagerly anticipated his iteration of "Real Life," and was disappointed that the verses have all been excised from the film (and its soundtrack album).

Review: TICK, TICK... BOOM! Drags, But Is Effective
Robin de Jesus, Michaela Jaé (MJ) Rodriguez, and Ben Ross
in TICK, TICK... BOOM! (2021)

Likewise, Bradley Whitford is radiant and touches the heart as legendary composer Stephen Sondheim. Memorable performances are also offered by Michaela Jaé (MJ) Rodriguez as Moondance Diner employee Carolyn, Judith Light as Jon's absentee agent Rosa Stevens, Judy Kuhn as Nan Larson, and Danny Burstein as Al Larson. Furthermore, it's beyond amazing seeing recognizable faces from Broadway and Off-Broadway fill out the cast, including Joshua Henry as Roger, Laura Benanti as Judy, Kate Rockwell as Lauren, and Joel Perez as Lincoln, among others.

In a film that is about and celebrates the life of one of Broadway's most recognizable composers it is hard not to pay lip service to the industry and community that gave his whole life and enduring presence meaning. It's a precarious line to walk. Ultimately, TICK, TICK...BOOM! makes mis-steps, and sometimes pushes the plot aside to ensure inclusion of as much of the contemporary musical world as possible. The film is at its best when it nails its obsession with a quickly diminishing amount of time, but its grandiose asides that showcase Larson's legacy and the way he forever touched theater do feel nice, even when they stall the film's forward momentum.


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