As the playwright Jonathan Larson in Tick, Tick… Boom!, Andrew Garfield wears a crown of unkempt curls that look like clefs spilling out of his skull. It is 1990, and Jon has been toiling on his science-fiction musical Superbia for eight years, long enough to cross the line from being “a writer who waits tables” to “a waiter with a hobby”. Songs are pouring from him. And if one won’t come, he goes for a late-night swim, where he hallucinates musical notes in the deep end, the floor of the pool lined like sheet music. An overhead shot shows him hanging alongside the notes on the staves like a prize-fighter caught on the ropes.
His boast that he is “the future of musical theatre” would sound delusional had time not proved him correct. Rent, his rock retelling of La Bohème, really did alter the landscape, bringing hints of realism and diversity to the Great White Way. Among those it inspired was Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Hamilton creator, who has repaid the debt handsomely by directing this film version of Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical Tick, Tick… Boom!, which was written before Rent and which has been adapted here by Steven Levenson. Larson did not live to see these events transpire. On 25 January 1996, hours before the off Broadway opening of Rent, he died of an aortic dissection at the age of 35.
We meet him as he approaches 30, plagued by a near-constant ticking sound (he likens it to the bomb in a B-movie), which warns him that time is running out. He could plug away in penury as a playwright in Manhattan, leave town with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), who has a job offer in the Berkshires, or compromise like Michael (Robin de Jesús), a former actor coining it in, sheepishly, as an advertising executive. “Can he make his mark/If he gives up his spark?” Jon sings, addressing his own predicament in the third person.
Larson’s compositions can be divided into middle-of-the-road rock singalongs, earnest ballads and forgettable doodles such as “Sunday”, a pretty but pointless homage to Sunday in the Park with George. No matter: Tick, Tick… Boom! is driven by the vitality of Miranda’s direction, and by Garfield’s electrified rag doll energy. Garfield’s frantic song-and-dance numbers with De Jesús are a special delight, especially “No More”, where the friends help one another walk up the walls – a trick Donald O’Connor managed solo in Singin’ in the Rain – while swanky doormen shower them with glitter.
The pairing of gangly Garfield with short, stocky De Jesús has more kick than the relationship between Jon and Susan, which only really comes alive in its discord. Embracing her after an argument, Jon taps his fingers distractedly on her back. “Oh my God,” she says. “You’re thinking about how you can turn this into a song, aren’t you?” In fact, the film’s framing device, which shows Jon performing Tick, Tick… Boom! on stage with a band and two actor-singers (Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry), enables Miranda to cut back and forth between the songs themselves and the real-life crises that inspired them.
This Russian doll effect recalls Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, and the film has its own in-jokey relationship with that 1979 musical. In the recent series Fosse/Verdon, co-created by Levenson, Miranda made a cameo appearance as the actor Roy Scheider, who starred in All That Jazz as a thinly veiled Fosse surrogate. It would do nobody any favours to pretend that Tick, Tick… Boom! is on the same level as that dazzling picture, but with its own fractious interplay between life and art, and its identical crescendo of mortality, it could reasonably be described as a kind of “All That Jazz, Jr”.
The film is also peppered with distinctive actors, among them the yappy, slab-faced Richard Kind, who has a supremely funny scene as a professor offering feedback on Superbia. Discovering that his own low opinion puts him out of step with Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), who is seated next to him and happens to love Jon’s work, he back-pedals frantically; it’s like watching a clown car trying to reverse out of a swamp. Wondrous in another small role is Judith Light as Jon’s agent, a gasbag still capable of giving sound advice, such as when she urges him to forget his futuristic opus and concentrate on “the next one”. There’s that Russian doll effect again. This is the next one. We’re watching it.
“Tick, Tick… Boom!” is in cinemas from 12 November, and on Netflix from 19 November
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks