tick, tick…Boom! is a musical theatre nerd’s dream. Starting life as an almost one-man-show written by the writer of Rent, Jonathan Larson, it achieved cult status amongst die-hard fans of musicals. Never seen on Broadway or the West End, it’s the sort of “you had to be there” musical rarely seen nowadays. It has been remade several times in various non-Broadway settings, one of which starring the director of its brand-new film adaptation, Lin-Manuel Miranda, but its latest version feels in prime position to take its place among your favourite musicals.

Jon, the aspiring future of musical theatre (Andrew Garfield), has creativity to burn, a seemingly never-ending imagination to conjure songs from thin air from even the tiniest spark of an idea, but is yet to achieve that big hit for which he so desperately yearns. tick, tick…Boom! follows Jon in the week leading up to a musical workshop to present his greatest idea yet, a high concept sci-fi musical named Superbia, all the while juggling a relationship that feels on its last legs, and the crushing inevitability of time as he approaches his 30th birthday (the second musical of the year to address the awful reality of turning 30 after Bo Burnham’s Inside).

From the off, Tick, Tick immediately grabs you with high octane, fast-paced editing, and the wide-eyed, manic energy of Andrew Garfield in the role of Jon. The original show is a semi-autobiographical piece about Jonathon Larson, so Miranda’s adaptation here is a quasi-biopic as much as it is a musical, and Garfield feels almost born to play the role. Not only does Garfield look strikingly similar to Larson (as shown in end-credits VHS recordings of the original tick, tick…Boom! from 1990), Jon feels like the role Garfield has been desiring for years. His performances always contain genuine physicality, never standing still for a moment as he moves from scene to scene; Jon is no different, pacing his apartment, across tables and chairs in endless bids of creative self-expression.

ANDREW GARFIELD as JONATHAN LARSON in tick, tick...BOOM!. Cr. MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX © 2021
ANDREW GARFIELD as JONATHAN LARSON in tick, tick…BOOM!. Cr. MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX © 2021

From its opening number (the brilliant toe-tapper “30/90”), Garfield commands your attention, giving his all into the performance, delivering every lyric with the same gusto as calling Mark Zuckerberg a pretentious douchebag. Tick, Tick is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man-show, whether in the framing device of the stage show in which Jon monologues about the week ahead or in the more naturalistic reconstructions with a handful of recurring supporting characters. Garfield feels entirely at home playing Jon and delivers the showmanship of the character just as effectively as his internal weaknesses. This is never better than during a spectacularly well-executed sequence in which Jon falls out with his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), and their teary-eyed, angry shouting argument contrasts with the stage performance of the song “Therapy,” a honky-tonk tête-à-tête with his friend, Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens). The performance of the song has Jon and Karessa playing marionettes that feels like a homage to “Doll on a Music Box” from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but their high-energy stage performance contrasts brilliantly against the emotion of the argument. With a lesser performance, this could have been deemed a gimmick, but with Garfield, the contrast only serves to augment Jon’s character, his outward expression never a true reflection of his true feelings, masking his weaknesses by doubling down on his immense musical talent.

Throughout Tick, Tick, it’s abundantly clear how much reverence Lin-Manuel Miranda holds for Jonathon Larson. Miranda’s adaptation serves as a tribute to musical theatre and one of his heroes, sometimes to the detriment of the film itself. At its best, Larson is held in outstanding esteem, his boundless creativity on show at every moment, even when his apparent writer’s block takes hold, his ability to derive creativity from things he doesn’t necessarily need to feels superhuman.

In one sequence, Jon creates an opening ensemble piece for a musical called “Sunday”, a lovely homage to Stephen Sondheim, only further emphasising the point of how impressive a mind Jonathan Larson has. However, at times, it’s as if Miranda pulls his punches somewhat, scared to criticise such an icon of musical theatre despite the evident negative impact his incessant desire to work has on those around him. Rhythmically tapping a song idea on the shoulder of his crying girlfriend as he consoles her is a devastating moment to showcase is constantly active mind, but the consequences for Jon are minimal, if not completely irrelevant to his end goal.

(L-R) ANDREW GARFIELD as JONATHAN LARSON, ALEXANDRA SHIPP as SUSAN in tick, tick…BOOM!. Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

His reluctance to criticise is one of the few missteps taken by Miranda, though, as Tick, Tick is a mightily impressive feature directorial debut. For all the flashiness you would expect from Miranda, he has the necessary patience to approach the film’s more challenging subject matter (the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 90s is ever-present throughout Tick, Tick) with an impressive level of matter-of-factness. Aided by a tender script by Steven Levenson (his second musical adaptation of the year after the cursed Dear Evan Hansen) and the brilliant performance by Garfield, the scenes in which Jon and his friends face the epidemic head on is deftly handled by all involved, demonstrating the devastating effect the virus has on the world and the disproportionate impact it has on the LGBTQ+ community.  

It has an almost unwavering confidence throughout its bigger set-pieces, sequences that will satisfy musical fans from every generation. Tick, Tick has a swathe of impressive musical sequences, from the seemingly diegetic “Boho Days,” in which Jon sings a cappella and dances around his apartment using the environment and his friends to create a beat, to the huge, larger-than-life fun of “No More” when Jon debates moving into a high-rise apartment building with his childhood best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesus), to the moving, one-man-and-his-piano ballad “Why” in the final act to showcase Garfield’s spectacular vocal range. There is something for everyone, though one would expect immense gratification would come from those with a real love for musical theatre.

tick, tick…Boom! is an impressive showcase of the seemingly unlimited talent of Andrew Garfield, who has finally found the role his boundless energy has so desperately craved. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s talent with a pen has translated to behind the camera as he has crafted terrific musical while doing justice to the artist that inspired him when he started his journey to becoming the sensation he is today. tick, tick…Boom! has an infectious energy about it that packs so much into it that it can at times appear overwhelming, particularly in its first act, but once you’ve settled into its rhythm, you’re in for an absolute blast.

Rating: ★★★★

tick, tick…Boom! is in select cinemas now and streaming on Netflix from November 19, 2021

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writer: Steven Levenson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Vanessa Hudgens