The desire to create something impactful and lasting is a common trait in any artistic pursuit. The trials and tribulations that come with the process are often as profound as the work that is the final product. In his feature length directorial debut tick, tick…BOOM!, Lin-Manuel Miranda explores what happens when the responsibilities of adulthood threaten to derail one’s creative locomotive.
Adapting Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical, the film follows one man’s desperate attempt to achieve his dreams before time runs out. Set in 1990, years before Larson would conceive his ground-breaking work Rent, Jon (Andrew Garfield) is a struggling artist in every sense of the word. The rent is due, he is working at a local diner, and he has spent the past eight-years working on a sci-fi musical called “Superbia” which is still missing the centerpiece song that will tie it altogether.
With Jon’s 30th birthday approaching, the bohemian lifestyle that he and his friends once reveled in is no longer financially sustainable. His best friend since childhood, Michael (Robin de Jesus), has decided to give up acting for the stability of the corporate world. Even his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), once an aspiring dancer, is mulling over accepting a teaching position that would take her out of the city and potentially alter their relationship. Unfortunately, with only days until his musical’s one and only workshop, a make-or-break event that could land the show a financial backer, Jon has little time for anything or anyone outside of getting his project off the ground.
It is when observing Jon’s self-absorbed nature that the uneven strands of tick, tick..BOOM! begin to unravel the entire film. Jon frequently pushes aside those closest to him, often in their time of need, in favour of his art. Miranda’s film frames Jon’s sanctimonious nature and his using of friends when it is convenient to him, as simply a side-effect of a theatre kid striving to achieve greatness. Even when bridges are burned, and friendships are altered, those Jon has scorned will always show up to support his work. Theatre is the glue that will forever bind them.
Miranda uses the film to both pay tribute to Larson’s genius and offer a cinematic love letter to Broadway itself. A simple segment intended to highlight Jon’s frustration and stresses is turned into a glowing celebration of Broadway’s past and present. While these moments are clearly intended for the die-hard theatre fans, it takes one out of the film and Jon’s plight. These types of directorial choices often inadvertently strip the film of its tension.
By opting to blend the stage production, where Jon and his band are performing the musical, with dramatic narrative moments, Miranda creates a disjointed work that never connects on an emotional level. For a film set during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and frequently touches on its impact to Jon’s inner circle, tick, tick..BOOM! never captures the social relevance with the same thought-provoking depth as Larson’s iconic work. Whenever the film broaches on moments that cause Jon to reflect on others outside of himself, take a serious conversation between him and Susan for example, the film juxtapose these sections with jaunty numbers from the musical that immediately defuse the emotion.
While there are several great songs in the film, they are often presented in an unremarkable fashion. This inadvertently takes away some of the gusto of the great work by the ensemble cast. Garfield in particular delivers one of the best performances of his career. While Miranda’s choices occasionally make Jon feel more like a self-centred villain rather than an inspiring hero, Garfield always maintains one’s interest and manages to bring out the complexities of the character. The supporting cast, which includes the always great Judith Light in a scene-stealing role, also deserve credit as they provide nuance to otherwise thinly written characters.
The lack of character depth ultimately hurts the film. tick, tick..BOOM! relies heavily on one knowing what Larson will ultimately achieve once the film is done, rather than caring about what he went through prior. The fact that Larson died of a sudden aortic aneurysm just hours before Rent had its first public performance adds to the sense of urgency in the film. However, one does not walk away from the film with anything more than the understanding that the artistic process can often be soul crushing and isolating. Life is full of crossroads where we must choose between our passions or taking a different path, however, tick, tick..BOOM! never fully embraces the cost of such decisions.