The last few years, there have been a couple of notable examples of movies taking actors who aren’t known for musicals and making them great musical performers — Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were both nominated for Oscars for their roles in La La Land (Stone won), and now Andrew Garfield is becoming a big time awards contender for his role in tick, tick…BOOM! And let me tell you now, he is amazing in this movie. As a longtime Garfield apologist, I now feel as vindicated as Captain Raymond Holt seeing so many people gush over how great this movie is.
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, tick, tick…BOOM! tells the story of Jonathan Larson, the writer of the stage play, Rent. Larson struggled in New York City in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with a desire to make something out of his life other than a suit-and-tie job, which he didn’t feel would be fulfilling. It’s a story that hit home harder than I ever expected it would, since musicals are hit-or-miss for me and I typically haven’t really connected to Miranda’s overall style. But interestingly, it’s Miranda’s work behind the camera that took the movie to the next level.
I find that first-time directors can tend to be flashy, and they like to show off all of the filmmaking tricks that they’ve been harboring. But since Miranda already has the experience of a storyteller as an actor, playwright, and screen writer, the direction in tick, tick, BOOM!, while flashy, is reserved when it needs to be. There are electrifying and upbeat musical numbers throughout, but it’s in the intimate moments that Miranda really makes you feel for these characters. You get excited seeing Jonathan perform his stage version of this musical (which the film itself was based off), but when he and his close friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) have an argument on the side of the street, you feel the blades of the knives that they’re throwing with their words. It’s a perfect mix of cutting and thrilling.
But the emotions that this film wears on its sleeves only scratches the surface of what makes it so good. It raises big questions and grapples with large, systemic themes. As the final song, “Louder Than Words,” says, “fear or love baby, don’t say the answer.” And the movie literally doesn’t give answers. Jonathan is a struggling artist who has true talent and important ideas to give to the world. But is what he has to say worth alienating his friends? Is it worth losing his girlfriend? Is it worth having the electricity to his apartment cut because he’s so behind on bills? Is it worth the constant, unending struggle? The movie doesn’t give any clear answers, but engages the audience with a lot to think about.
It hit me in a lot of ways. For much of the movie, I don’t think you’re really supposed to root for Jon. Or, at least, you’re supposed to disagree with much of what he’s doing. He thinks he needs to suffer for his art, but because of it, he neglects his relationships. His head is always in the clouds, coming up with ideas for his musical and not thinking about what’s right in front of him. And he rages against the ideas and lifestyle that Michael has fallen into, in which he’s getting a nicer apartment and has a suit-and-tie job. But when Michael tells Jonathan, he’s HIV positive, all of Jonathan’s struggles go out the window, and they’re boiled down to people’s base humanity. However, when you start at base humanity and begin building a worldview back up, the same questions still remain. The questions and truth of the story are all balanced so well. Its ultimate message is that life is worth living because of the questions and the struggle.
The film’s existential themes are also there in the form of Jonathan complaining about what kind of plays find their way onto Broadway. The play he’s writing is different, out there, and expensive, the kind of thing that Broadway wouldn’t take a chance on. He bemoans the industry’s shunning of anything new or idiosyncratic, and it’s obviously a pointed commentary on any giant industry like this — whether it’s theater, film, or music. And once the workshop for the play he’s been working on finally goes well, all his agent has to say is, “What are you gonna do next?” Jonathan realizes that he’s now part of a machine that he never envisioned himself entering in the first place. The movie doesn’t hit you over the head with these struggles, per se, but the ideas permeate throughout. Otherwise, what would Jonathan be struggling for?
And when all’s said and done, it is Garfield’s performance as Larson that holds the movie together. Garfield hasn’t poked his head out much lately, but he’s back in 2021 with Mainstream, The Eye of Tammy Faye, and now tick, tick…BOOM!, all of which explore our culture and the institutions that form it in some way or another, which is Garfield’s sweet spot. While his earlier two entries of the year were mixed, this one is something entirely special. His newfound ability to sing and dance allows an avenue for his perpetually below the surface energy to explode, while he still nails the intimate and emotional moments that he’s done so well in the past. I only hope this movie proves to wider audiences just how great he can be.
I wasn’t expecting to say tick, tick…BOOM! would be one of my favorite movies to come out this year, but it is. Its music has been stuck in my head, its themes have been on my mind, and the joy it brought has been around me as well. It will leave you moved, inspired, and questioning, accomplishing all three perfectly.