AFI Fest Review: ‘Tick, tick…Boom!’

Is suffering required in order for art to be great? This is a question not asked explicitly but flirted with in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, Tick, tick…Boom! The film opened this year’s AFI Fest in Hollywood to an enthusiastic crowd whose joyful cheers almost made it possible to overlook its many flaws.

In 1996, the Broadway musical Rent was the hottest ticket in town. With its rock style, its modern take on the opera La Bohème, and its bold confrontation of the AIDS crisis, Jonathan Larson’s show won four Tony Awards and six additional nominations. The triumph was bittersweet, though, because Larson wasn’t there to celebrate or to accept his honors. He tragically and suddenly passed away the night before its off-Broadway premiere.

Tick, tick…Boom! is not a movie about Rent, although that show’s themes are infused throughout, with flutters of half-conceived song lyrics and moments clearly planted as Easter eggs of inspiration for the play that would follow. Instead, this is a story about Jonathan Larson, the man who, facing his 30th birthday, laments the successes he has not yet had, the shows he has not yet opened, the songs he has not yet written. Adapted from Larson’s autobiographical show of the same name, Miranda’s film seeks to honor the man who, in many ways, helped usher in a new era of American theater. Whether Miranda successfully accomplishes this, though, depends on who you ask.

Andrew Garfield stars as Jonathan Larson at a point in his life when he is waiting tables at the Moondance Diner and desperately trying to finish the show he has been writing for eight years. He has a real deadline now though, because he has a workshop in six days. We know because he tells us — and everyone around him — over and over again. He has a workshop! Nothing matters because he has a workshop! Meanwhile, his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) has been offered a job that would require her to move out of the city, his best friend and roommate has just moved to a fancy new apartment funded by his fancy job in advertising, and Jonathan keeps getting notices that his power is about to be shut off.

But none of that matters right now. Because he has a workshop.

The narrative leading to that fateful day is intercut with scenes of Garfield as Jonathan with a small cast and band in an intimate theater, performing the very same autobiographical musical we are watching unfold. There are some moments of shining brilliance in those scenes, but they are dashed by jarring tonal juxtapositions that don’t quite work. One such sequence sets a Chicago-inspired number against a real argument between Jonathan and Susan. It draws from the marionette/press conference number which moves back and forth between Billy Flynn as a ventriloquist and Roxie Hart as his dummy, and the “real” version of events where Billy feeds her story to a crowd of ravenous reporters. In Tick, tick…Boom!, the number moves between a sort of puppet scene and a real argument between Jonathan and Susan in an homage that might have worked had the “real life” part not been so weighed down by seriousness. The mixture of the two doesn’t fit and leaves both sides of the song unsatisfying. A cute line from Alexandra Shipp at the end of it almost saves the moment, but not quite.

Larson’s story is fascinating and the idea of using his words to tell it was a good one. The concept of mingling his theatrical version of his life’s story with the actual life story is clever and might have worked in the hands of a more experienced director, or at least one with the ability to show more objectivity toward the revered artist. Instead, Miranda crafts a film that shows Larson’s faults as charming quirks of a genius rather than being willing to examine potential character flaws. Jonathan ignores friends because he’s got that workshop, but he doesn’t just ignore them. He’s rude and selfish and since they love him anyway, the message is that we should too.

And then there is his starving artist persona, as if art doesn’t really count unless the person making it has lived with an appropriate level of starvation and pain. The problem here is that in one later scene, in the midst of a pivotal moment and staring down his looming deadline, he faces one final challenge and reaches for a lifeline that has, apparently, always been there. But the focus isn’t on the fact that he could have pulled himself out of his circumstances sooner. It’s on the person on the other end of the phone who is still unable to help. The desperation shifts from a financial issue to a customer service one and reveals that the real problem all along has not been Jonathan’s inability to pay his bills, but the single-mindedness that couldn’t be bothered with such details. It might have been an incredible moment of revelation if we, the audience, were given space to parse this out, or if he had been called out for it or if he faced any actual consequences at all. But we aren’t, and he wasn’t, and he didn’t. By showing this, Miranda touches on Larson’s self-imposed suffering and voluntary poverty without ever exploring why or what it meant for the work he would write. Whether the experience really happened or was crafted from his imagination is unclear, but either way it is a fragment of an idea that never fully forms, and this is a missed opportunity.

Tick, tick…Boom! isn’t a terrible film. It will have its fans, mostly from the musical theater community who will speak of it with the same hushed tones of respect they give to the man who first wrote it. They will love the songs and not consider them forgettable first drafts of something better. The movie was made for them and because of them. But for the rest of it, is feels more like a hazy, dreamy romanticized version of events that is afraid to smudge a beloved legacy.

Tick, tick…Boom! will be available on Netflix November 19.

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