What a difference a day makes. I was feeling quite apathetic about viewing whatever Netflix had lined up this weekend; last week’s Red Notice tested my belief that the streamer was capable of making anything of cultural significance. After the blast of interest in Lin-Manuel Miranda post-Hamilton, the ‘film’ version turned out to be a recorded stage-event, while the movie of his much vaunted musical In The Heights strangely didn’t connect with an audience. Much like his former teen idol star here, Andrew Garfield, Miranda was beginning to look like the product of media hype, a genuine talent, sure, but maybe a theatrical one who would never quite click cinematically beyond a supporting role in Mary Poppins.
And then pops up Tick…Tick…BOOM!, an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s musical about his own life, living the Boho lifestyle in New York before his huge success with Rent. As the title suggests, there’s a countdown going on, and as the numbers get smaller, Larson (Garfield) has a rising sense of his own mortality. His relationship with Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is fizzling, his friends are quitting the arts and getting well-paid jobs, and HIV/AIDS has taken away many of those he cared about. The kitchen sink is full of dishes, Larson isn’t getting any younger, his savvy agent is too savvy to return his calls and he still hasn’t come up with a climactic song for his latest musical venture, which has a looming workshop in front of an audience of invited glitterati, possible including Stephen Sondheim.
Perhaps Tick…Tick…Boom! isn’t the kind of musical that garners universal praise; it doubles down on the Broadway feel and delves into a familiar niche of artistic angst and self-pity that has been the graveyard of many talents. So if you’re averse to a show-tune, crack open a beer and watch the big game instead; Larson’s score has a dozen songs and they’re all better than you could hope for. So the core material is great, but is the film any good? Despite the wealth of high profile projects so far, this is Miranda’s first film as a director, and he knocks it out of the park with a sizzling, creative approach that suggests an upbeat variation on Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz in 1979; Cabaret’s Joel Grey has a cameo here. Each song offers a set piece, from the stunning opener Happy Birthday to the plaintive ode to the Midtown diner Larson worked in (Sunday) and the caustic two-hander Therapy which sees Larson struggling to avoid putting his own romantic problems into his professional life. That theme, of an artist trying to identify and justify their choice of subject, is a key one here; this song is intercut with Larson and Susan almost making up, before she suspects that he’ll use the experience as the subject for a song, and promptly walks out on him. With time snapping at his heels, what can an artist do?
Tick…Tick…BOOM! may be the least hyped thing Miranda has been connected with to date, but it may also be the most cinematic. While the technique is dazzling, the approach is incisive, and never lets go of the various strands of Jonathan Larson’s creative development, cut short by his death at a young age. Despite the intimations of mortality, that death barely registers as a single card here before the music kicks back in with the rousing Louder Than Words. This isn’t a wake, but a celebration: Miranda and Garfield have made a cinematic musical for the ages, one that detonates our expectations with creative energy and mordant wit.
Tick…Tick…BOOM! is out now on Netflix.