While I love venturing out to the theatre, sometimes you just want to stay home in the warm. So it’s always a treat when something great appears on a streaming service. I say great, but that’s a bit of an understatement when talking about tick, tick… BOOM! It’s one of the best musical films I’ve ever seen, and that’s why it feels right to be reviewing it for Everything Theatre.
Based on the musical monologue by Jonathan Larson, the screenplay was written by Steven Levenson with direction in the hands of Lin Manuel Miranda. Larson is known mostly for composing Tony award-winning musical Rent; in fact, that is all I knew about him as I settled in to watch a film based on his autobiographical musical. Sadly, much of his success happened following his tragically early death; he died the night before the Off-Broadway previews of Rent began. tick, tick… BOOM! focuses around his 30th birthday, and his hopes and aspirations as a struggling writer and composer.
Andrew Garfield prepared for the lead role of Jonathan by not only learning the piano, but also how to sing. I’ve heard of actors learning to play the piano for roles before; impressive but possible with hours of intensive practise. But to learn to sing from scratch, and to then give the performance that Garfield does is extraordinary. It’s not hard to see why social media is awash with Oscar nomination talk. He immersed himself fully in studying Jonathan’s life and work, and that dedication shows; when watching a video of both Jonathan and Garfield performing 30/90, it’s almost like looking at a mirror image.
The magic of Levenson’s screenplay and Miranda’s direction also contribute to the pure joy of it all. The film flits between Jonathan performing his musical monologue and dramatic interpretations of his life. It centres around the struggles of his career as he turns 30, and the impact of this on both friendships and relationships. A highlight is the performance of Sunday, based in the diner where Jonathan is working. It’s a beautiful song, perfectly staged and filled with incredible cameos. Not all might be household names, but I particularly enjoyed the Schuyler Sisters from Hamilton popping up. It could have felt cheesy, but instead it was more like a mark of respect to what Jonathan contributed to the world of musical theatre in his short life.
It’s not just Oscar nomination chat: people are also talking about how this film will make you cry. Yes, I ugly cried for at least the final 20 minutes. Set in early 1990’s New York, many of Jonathan’s friends died from AIDS and while the breakup of his relationship is moving, it is the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS crisis that will get you. What makes this film even more moving and timely is the presence and support of Stephen Sondheim (who passed away in the week this review was written) in Jonathan’s story. He is depicted on the screen by Bradley Whitford, but in one of the movie’s final moments, Sondheim is heard leaving Jonathan a voicemail, encouraging him to keep going. That message is the voice of Stephen Sondheim himself.
tick, tick… BOOM! is utterly captivating, moving, and inspiring. It brings out what it means to be an artist, the true struggles of a great talent and the tragedies that can befall us in life. The soundtrack is now on repeat in my home, and I’ll be watching the film again very soon: the beauty of having easy access to something so extraordinary. What a privilege.
Screenplay by: Steven Levenson
Based on the musical by: Jonathan Larson
Directed by: Lin Manuel Miranda
tick, tick… BOOM! is currently available on Netflix.