‘Tick, Tick…Boom!’: Lin-Manuel Miranda Directs a Vibrant Tribute to Jonathan Larson

Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to be everywhere these days. Animated films feature his songs. Say the name Broadway and he instantly comes to mind, especially after the smash success of “Hamilton,” his hip-hop-fueled take on the American Revolution. Earlier this year his musical “In the Heights,” about Latinx communities in New York City, was adapted for the screen. Now for his own directorial debut as a filmmaker, Miranda decides to honor another artist who paved the way. “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is an adaptation of a stage production by the late Jonathan Larson, who is best known for having written the groundbreaking musical “Rent,” which explored East Village life amid the AIDS crisis. Larson died in 1996, just as opening night was around the corner. Miranda’s film is an exhilarating profile of a magnificent talent, but it has a real punch by using Larson as a vehicle to explore the artistic process and how being an artist isn’t always as fun as it sounds.

Andrew Garfield plays Larson or Jon, as he is known to all in the musical. It is 1990 and Jon is about to turn 30, which means he’s younger than Stephen Sondheim was when unleashing “West Side Story.” He writes and writes music, finessing a sci-fi musical he has been composing for eight years. To survive Jon works as a waiter at a local diner and lives in a Greenwich Street apartment where heating is a mere fantasy. His girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), an aspiring dancer, is more pragmatic and hopes to land a job in the Berkshires. Other friends in his bohemian circle, like Michael (Robin de Jesus), are ready to put away their artistic dreams and get something steady with benefits, like advertising. The gay community is also facing the AIDS crisis, which also distracts many from creative pursuits. Already Jon has lost three friends to the disease, all in their 20s. But Jon refuses to surrender, mostly because he doesn’t know what else he would do with his life. A workshop offers the potential to get Jon’s work in front of the sort of backers that could help him launch a career. But will anyone listen?

Whenever an artist writes a whole production about themselves, one naturally tilts toward skepticism. Is it a case of self-importance? In the case of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” there is a powerful sincerity and relatability to Larson’s songs and story. For Miranda it’s a great choice for a film directing debut, because as Jon’s own agent advises him in the movie, it’s about doing what you know. This is Larson’s story, yet we can feel Miranda relating to every moment and frame. New York City is the setting and gives the musical a particular flavor, but this could be Los Angeles or Paris, or wherever someone is insisting on devoting their life to creativity even if the odds look impossible. Many of the songs lack any ego, they instead sound like honest confessionals. The opening number, “30/90,” is about how anyone can feel entering their 30s, where you still have the vigor of youth but feel the pressure of needing to “get serious” about careers, finances, and all those little things that define a functioning citizen. “Boho Days” celebrates “bohemian” life with hints that having no lightbulbs or privacy can get tiring. Jon meditates on how at 30, his parents had two children and a mortgage. This moment no doubt resonates even more strongly with today’s Millennials, including the ones not wanting to be Broadway sensations.

As a filmmaker Miranda mounts an energetic, visually sharp production. He doesn’t just film a musical, but gives it a real cinematic flare. The narrative cuts between Jon’s monologue on a stage and his memories. Song numbers have bursts of visual creativity, like a diner wall falling down for a finale where everyone basks in sunlight or Jon following musical notes while swimming at a public pool. However, Miranda lets the drama have the grit of downtrodden life in the big city. Apartments and diners don’t feel stagey, which gives it all a more authentic romanticism and honesty. When Michael shows Jon his plush new apartment, we can sense the brutal tension of Jon fighting back his desire to want this. It would be so easy if he just took a “normal” job. In one of the most emotionally potent scenes, Michael, who is gay, asks Jon what makes him so much more righteous. At least Jon can be with the person he loves, while Michael can’t get married and feels the threat of AIDs impacting the community. These are hard and piercing questions that elevate the drama to somewhere above the typical, “misunderstood genius” genre.

As a profile of an artist “Tick, Tick…Boom!” still features all that is inspiring and fun in such a story. Andrew Garfield is always alive in this role, bringing out the manic creativity and tired feel of someone who knows they’re good, but have to push a boulder up a hill to get anywhere. Garfield also sings and carries the material very well. Miranda puts aside the current trend of having musical films sung live and has many moments lip synched, but with skill. Vanessa Hudgens and Alexandra Shipp are also up to the task with moments where their vocals soar, as in a rendition of “Come to Your Senses,” for the moment where Jon debuts his sci-fi musical in front of an audience that includes Stephen Sondheim himself, played with quiet gravitas by Bradley Whitford. 

“Tick, Tick…Boom!” is both one great playwright and composer honoring another by adapting his work with dynamism, and a keen lesson for the audience. You can sense Miranda striking a punch for every creative out there with those little moments where diner customers are cruel or when people keep asking Jon, “but are they paying you?” Countless dreamers make their way to film schools, drama schools or sit in front of a typewriter assuming the magic and recognition just happen. Larson’s musical is a powerful testimonial from a survivor of truly living with your vocation. He finally found the ultimate inspiration in what was already happening around him. In the film, when Jon learns one of his friends has AIDS, it is as if a painful opening of his creative mind occurs. “Rent” would be the result, written and composed out of real experience and human relationships. Death would come suddenly for Larson from an aortic aneurysm. Yet until the very end, he never let go of what he felt actually gave him life.

Tick, Tick…Boom!” begins streaming Nov. 19 on Netflix.