tick, tick... BOOM! ****
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, MJ Rodriguez, Judith Light
Director: Lin Manuel Miranda
Jonathan Larson had the potential to become one of the biggest names in musical theatre. When his now legendary Rent debuted on Broadway in 1996 it was met with a deluge of acclaim, with critics and audiences alike adoring the writer’s modern take on the genre, both for its use of rock music and its controversial but delicately handled subject matter. But Larson would never witness this ecstatic reaction because he died of an aortic aneurism on the morning of the show’s first performance. He was aged only thirty-five.
Five years before, Larson was a down-and-out failed playwright receiving rejection after rejection. Following the failure of his musical Superbia, Larson wrote the autobiographical musical three-hander tick, tick… BOOM!, which has now been adapted for the screen by Lin Manual Miranda. The Hamilton director reportedly begged Netflix for the opportunity to direct this film because the parallels between them – struggling writers whose Broadway debuts reached dizzying success – are uncanny. And the result is something quite special.
Larson (Garfield – The Social Network, Hacksaw Ridge) is living in New York in the early ‘90s. He is struggling to survive with barely enough money to pay rent and his bills. His girlfriend (Shipp – Love, Simon, X-Men: Apocalypse) has been offered a new job away from the city, but Larson is focused on one thing and one thing only: the success of the workshop of Superbia. His best friend Michael (de Jesús – The Boys In The Band) has taken an advertising job in the city and moved into a gleaming new apartment, scaling the heights of financial success. But Larson remains in squalor, trying desperately to be noticed by the great and the good of Broadway.
For fans of Rent, this film is an absolute treat, filled with tasty Easter-eggs presenting a plethora of the play’s influences. Larson is basically Roger, writing rock ballads about the reality of his life, whose answerphone announces the now famous “Speeeeak!”. Grainy super-8 footage of his childhood is used to create montage, while his friendship with diverse and disparate artsy sorts feels like we’re seeing the real faces behind Mimi, Angel, Collins and the gang. There’s even a song entitled ‘Boho Days’, which was clearly a precursor to Rent’s famed ‘La Vie Boheme’. The entire source material feels like a writer testing the water with material that would evolve to become one of the longest shows ever to run on Broadway.
Garfield is outstanding as Larson, absorbed in the role; eating, sleeping and breathing his musical. At the film’s centre sits his friendship with Michael, who is played with charming affability by a sparkling Robin de Jesús. The best friend dynamic between a straight and a gay man is territory rarely explored on film, so it’s refreshing to see this depicted so dexterously on screen. And as the film plays out against the backdrop of the AIDS Crisis, you can plainly see the signposting as characters keep advising “Write what you know” in a way that we can only understand now in hindsight, which would not have been evident when the show was first performed.
The film looks, smells and feels exactly like a hyper-real version of Larson’s greatest work. Hyper-real, that is, if reality involves everyone breaking into song. Is the story as compelling as Rent’s? No. Are its musical numbers up to the same standard? Again, no, but it’s such an enriching companion piece that it opens up Larson’s style and oeuvre far more than Rent does on its own. But. Would tick, tick… BOOM! work as a stand-alone piece without its audience having seen Rent beforehand? Decidedly not. So if you’re a big fan of the play, this works on so many levels. But if not, you can probably deduct a couple of stars.
UK Release: Out now to watch on Netflix.