tick, tick… BOOM!
- Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
- Screenwriters: Steven Levenson
- Starring: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Judith Light, Vanessa Hudgens
In 2021 there will be a total of 9 musicals adapted from Broadway for the big screen. The world will also be subjected to 4 projects involving Lin-Manuel Miranda in one way or another in the same year (not to mention the hangover of Hamilton‘s premiere on Disney+ late in 2020). Those two worlds collide with Miranda as director in tick, tick…BOOM!. Say what you will about Miranda’s hegemony with his musical stylings, but he manages to distinguish himself with visual and dramatic flair in his debut film.
It’s easy to see why Miranda was so drawn to making a film that focuses on the life and work of Broadway pioneer Jonathan Larson. Not only is Miranda a lifelong lover of the theater, but I imagine he sees a large part of himself in Larson’s life and work. Larson, as portrayed here and performed with genuine enthusiasm by Andrew Garfield, is a dreamer down to his bones. And, as Miranda eventually did with Hamilton, Larson revolutionized what Broadway was capable of.
The bulk of the film sees Larson striving through all possible avenues to get his first musical – not Rent but a much more experimental tale – off the ground. One of Miranda’s more interesting decisions in the film is the story’s structure, with Larson narrating the film’s events on stage. We learn in the end that the production is Larson’s own off-Broadway work with the same title as the film, which gives the entire endeavor a sort of meta Russian-nesting-doll vibe. BOOM! is more refreshing from its bio-pic contemporaries in that it doesn’t seek to tell Larson’s entire life story. Rather, it’s pulling from a very specific period of his life, filled with doubt and uncertainty. The second half sees Larson consumed with trying to come up with a new song for the emotional lynchpin of his musical before he presents it to potential producers. If nothing else, BOOM! is a uniquely detailed look behind the curtain of what it takes to make a Broadway production.
Larson has all the confidence in the world, but first he has to grind through the often-unforgivable machine of Broadway, whose streets are littered with the dreams of people just like him. Through his writing struggles, Larson alienates himself from his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) and girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp). Miranda risks making Larson an unlikeable character and losing the audience, but Garfield is charming enough to prevent that from happening. Garfield oozes enthusiasm for what he believes in, and puts his physicality into all of the musical sequences. It’s in these musical sequences where Miranda shows off his talent for creating visually striking scenes that justify the film’s existence. One scene diverts to an impromptu rapper in an audition line that takes on the look of an era-appropriate music video, neon-tinted background and all. For anyone who’s grown accustomed – or, in this reviewer’s case, a little exhausted – to Miranda’s incredibly specific musical cadence, I am pleased to report that BOOM!‘s music feels refreshingly new. From the fantastical “No More” to the eleventh-hour tearjerker “Why”, the songs on the whole may not be as ear-wormy as Miranda’s best work, but they’re staged and shot effectively and express the necessary emotions.
tick, tick… BOOM! exists not only as a love letter to Larson but to the theater industry overall. A supporting appearance from Bradley Whitford as Stephen Sondheim notwithstanding, Miranda has populated the background of the film with a who’s who of contemporary Broadway royalty and Tony Award winners – and yes, some Hamilton cast-mates make an appearance. Plenty of 2021’s other musical adaptations have had bigger musical numbers or have professed to be about prescient issues, but BOOM! is the most urgent of them all. With the stage shut down since the pandemic began and audiences still wary of returning, Miranda has crafted a loving reminder of the love and sacrifice that goes on behind the scenes to create Broadway’s shows. tick, tick… BOOM! may be outshined by Stephen Spielberg’s updated take on West Side Story and the adaptation of Miranda’s own In the Heights, but Miranda’s film stands out because of the love and care put into it behind the scenes.
tick, tick… BOOM! premieres on Netflix on November 19.