Review by Sean Boelman
There has been an abundance of movie musicals in 2021, and it is refreshing to see this (generally) peppy trend given what we have been going through for nearly two years now. And although tick, tick… BOOM! deals with some rather dark subject matter compared to the rest of them, its mostly uplifting nature is quite infectious.
Based on Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical off-Broadway musical, the film follows a promising theatre composer who struggles to break onto the scene despite his brilliance. In terms of the story itself, it’s something that musical theatre fans are more likely to care about, as they will already be familiar with the greater context of the movie. But general audiences will still empathize with the core arc of pursuing one’s dreams.
Larson is known for his innovative style of songwriting, and that is certainly the case here. There are some songs that feel more like classic showtunes, and others that are something more unorthodox. But only “Boho Days” (which wasn’t even in the original stage version of the show) will be an earworm, and the lack of an original song is both surprising and disappointing.
Obviously, the message that the film has about perseverance and never giving up on one’s aspirations is extremely inspiring. And the ending of this story, with which those aware of Larson’s career will be familiar, only makes it ring even more true. There are also some subplots in the movie, including one about the AIDS crisis, that feel underdeveloped.
On paper, it seems like this could very easily turn into a “woe is me” type of autobiography, but the whole affair is surprisingly humble. The film is the directorial debut of the extremely talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, and it is clear that it was made by a theatre lover for other theatre lovers. His tremendous respect for Larson is a big part of what makes the movie work as well as it does.
Andrew Garfield’s performance in the leading role is nothing short of extraordinary. In regards to the musical portions of his role, he pulls them off extremely well, as he has an unexpectedly lovely singing voice. But even more impressive is how perfectly he pulls off the dramatic sections, especially the more emotionally intense scenes like those involving Larson’s best friend/roommate (played by Robin de Jesus).
Visually, the film does struggle a bit with finding the right balance between realism and fantasy. Even in the more grounded scenes, there is an air of surrealism that doesn’t ever quite go away. And the only scene that truly leans into all-out fantasy is the musical number “Sunday”, which is one of the highlights of the movie.
The core audience for which tick, tick… BOOM! was made will absolutely eat it up, but there’s also plenty that general audiences will love. It’s not a perfect film by any means, although Lin-Manuel Miranda shows a lot of promise as a director.
tick, tick… BOOM! screened at the 2021 AFI FEST, which runs November 10-14.