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Tick, Tick... Boom review: Andrew Garfield is terrific in Lin-Manuel Miranda's directorial debut

The first film from the Hamilton creator is entertaining though imperfect.

tick, tick...BOOM!
Published: Thursday, 11th November 2021 at 8:00 am
A star rating of 3 out of 5.

Love him or loathe him, it can't be denied that Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of the busiest people in Hollywood right now. This year alone, the Hamilton creator has had his hit Broadway musical In the Heights adapted for the big screen and provided songs for two different animated films – Netflix's Vivo and the upcoming Disney flick Encanto. And now, the time has come for him to take his first stab at directing with Tick, Tick... Boom, an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical musical of the same name by Rent writer Jonathan Larson – played here by Andrew Garfield.

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The film serves as a sort of musical biopic of Larson's pre-Rent life, following the writer's career as he attempts to break into the industry with his high-concept sci-fi musical Superbia, in between shifts waiting tables at the Moondance Diner. Interestingly, the original musical was essentially a one-man play, performed by Larson himself as a "rock monologue" – and not, therefore, something that necessarily lends itself towards a particularly cinematic adaptation. Miranda's workaround is to frame the story through Larson telling it to an audience on stage, as in the original, but to then also show the events of Jonathan's life play out in more traditional fashion.

This method means that many of the film's musical numbers cut between scenes of the action unfolding and Garfield singing on stage, almost like you'd expect to see in a music video. It's an odd approach, and one that yields mixed results. Often, it makes it difficult for the film to escape the inherent staginess of its premise, but there are other times where it works surprisingly well – such as one number that takes the shape of Jonathan and his girlfriend Susan having a row. Initially, the on-stage sections here seem to undercut the emotion of the scene, until Susan hits Jonathan with the accusation that he's spent the entirety of the argument thinking about how he can turn it into a song, and suddenly it makes sense to present it this way – with the number serving as a sort of commentary on the disconnect between performed emotion and the real thing.

Anyone who knows Larson's story will be well aware that the film has an element of tragedy to it, but Miranda's handling of the darker aspects of the plot – both Jonathan's own tragedy and the impact of the AIDS crisis, which inspired him to write Rent – seems a little saccharine, meaning the film doesn't have as much emotional impact as it could have, though admittedly some scenes involving Jonathan's best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) are played rather well. Meanwhile, the film's title is derived from the noise Jonathan hears almost constantly inside his head, a buildup of pressure that makes his whole existence feel like a ticking time bomb. We hear that ticking prominently in the sound design at various points during the film, but perhaps this aspect could have been played up further – providing more tension to a film that sometimes feels a touch too safe to really get under the skin.

What can’t be denied is that Garfield is absolutely terrific in the lead role, undoubtedly the film's greatest asset. He's as comfortable as an all-singing showman in the stage sections as he is playing Jonathan in the more traditional dramatic scenes, brilliantly infusing the character with a frantic, nervous energy and just the right amount of arrogance, ensuring he remains likeable and sympathetic in spite of his sometimes short-sighted nature. If he's up for awards for his performance here, as has been touted, then it will be very well deserved.

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The film around him could maybe have dazzled just a little more at times, but for the most part, it breezes along nicely, and there are a couple of laugh-out-loud moments – including a brilliant display of obsequiousness by Jonathan's tutor to a visiting Stephen Sondheim, played with relish by Bradley Whitford. Some of the songs work well too – I particularly enjoyed an a capella number titled Boho Days towards the beginning, while Sunday is also a well-staged delight. But really, this is Garfield's show – and for his performance alone it's well worth the price of admission.

Tick, Tick... BOOM! is released in select UK cinemas on Friday 12th November and arrives on Netflix on Friday 19th November. Visit our Movies hub for more news and features or find something to watch tonight with our TV Guide.
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