Jonathan Larson will forever be a young genius. He changed musical theater in his 30s with Rent, but tragically died before the show opened due to an aortic dissection. Instead of a long career filled with stunning work, we can only glimpse at Larson’s origin, which he crafted himself with the autobiographical musical Tick, Tick…Boom! Now that work has made the jump from stage to film with another musical prodigy, Lin-Manuel Miranda (who won his first Tonys for In the Heights when he was only 28), making his feature directing debut. While it takes some time for the themes of the movie to really cohere, you can’t deny the film’s big, beating heart of young ambition, fear, and unabashed love for the world of musical theater. With Andrew Garfield giving a stunning performance at the film’s center, Tick, Tick…Boom! is a captivating tribute to an artist working to discover his voice.
Jon (Garfield) is at a crossroads at his life. He’s about to turn 30 and feels like he hasn’t broken through in the musical theater world like his heroes, so if his long-in-development work Superbia doesn’t catapult him to mainstream success, he may have to give up on his dream. But before that happens, he’s going to invest everything he has (and financially, he doesn’t have much since he works at a diner and lives in New York City) even if that means alienating his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) and girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp). Struggling to finish Superbia and get the money to make his workshop for as good as possible, Jon feels like this is his last chance to do something with his life even as he’s surrounded by friends whose lives are being cut short by AIDS.
Maybe it’s because I don’t romanticize my 20s, but it took most of the movie for me to connect with Jon despite Garfield’s incredibly work. There’s just something incredibly…well, 20s, about thinking that it’s the most important time in your life and if you don’t accomplish something great within that decade you will forever lose your chance at greatness. Jon needs to grow up, but he has to grow up in a particular way. It’s not necessarily that he’s immature—after all, he’s working a tough job he hates and living in a crappy apartment all so he can follow his dream. He’s making the necessary sacrifices and not counting on wealthy parents or luck to carry him through. He’s got the talent, drive, and ambition, but what he’s missing is a voice, and Tick, Tick…Boom! is about what goes into artistic maturity.
In lesser hands, Jon’s journey would feel a little banal and trite, but Miranda and Garfield work wonders with the material. That’s not to diminish Larson’s own work, but rather that Tick, Tick…Boom! feels incredibly specific to a kind of young person, and if you’re not in that orbit, the desires feel increasingly distant with Jon’s all-or-nothing mentality. However, Miranda and Garfield make those desires feel tangible and alive. This artistic pursuit is Jon’s entire being, and he’s afraid that if he doesn’t make it now, he will be doomed to a life that will be unfulfilling. It’s a worthwhile question of what you do when you have the talent and you put in the work, and nothing comes of it anyway. Artistic fields are far from a meritocracy, and yet when you love something and must do it (something I feel is the key difference between creative types and everyone else), that can turn your world and sense of self upside-down.
While Miranda’s direction is surprisingly adept and inspired considering this is his first outing, the film rides on Garfield’s performance. No one does vulnerability quite like Garfield, and while he’s an actor that can go darker when necessary (please see Under the Silver Lake), he’s arguably at his best when he’s playing someone scared, optimistic, and defiant. He’s just painfully good at playing someone you want to protect and cheer for while not creating a flat, heroic archetype. Even if you could not care less about Rent or Jonathan Larson, Garfield makes us empathize not with “making it big” or even “following your dreams” but the creative impulse and how much we’ll sacrifice because the work has to be done.
Your mileage on Tick, Tick…Boom! may vary on how much you’re willing to relate to the world of musical theater and the desire to create, but with good songs, thoughtful direction, and a terrific lead performance, the film manages to be the best kind of tribute that shows Larson in his own words and with all his flawed humanity. Turning 30 may not have been the Earth-shattering change that Larson imagined it to be, but Tick, Tick…Boom! is inspiring for showing how we reappraise our lives, the people around us, and what forces us not simply to age, but to grow.