Full Disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of Rent. For years, I lied about that because as a theater kid growing up in the ‘90s, I was expected to love Rent. But I couldn’t connect to those fantastical bohemians, who were glorious in their grimy paradise. So, I had glumly predicted tick, tick…Boom!, a musical about the life of Rent’s creator Jonathan Larson, would not be my jam. But translated to the screen by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dear Evan Hansen scribe Steven Levenson this musical gives a slightly more grounded yet sensationally cinematic interpretation of La Vie Bohème. And I simply swooned.
The litmus test on whether or not you’ll fall in love with tick, tick…Boom! may not be Rent appreciation as much as a love for all things Lin-Manuel Miranda. The multi-hyphenate who turned the world of Broadway upside down with a historical rap musical now channels his boundless enthusiasm into every frame of his feature directorial debut. The result has big Theater Kid Energy, the kind that causes us to explode into show tunes in public (be it on key or woefully off.) It’s the kind of chaotic energy that can boom with possibility…or be really annoying if that’s not your scene.
It’s the kind of chaotic energy that can boom with possibility…or be really annoying.
tick, tick…Boom! begins in 1990 SOHO, where aspiring composer Jon (Andrew Garfield) is juggling a survival job, an in-the-works high-concept rock musical, and an oft-overwhelming fear of failure. In 8 days, he’ll turn 30, officially becoming too old for Broadway success to make him a prodigy. While he’s living in a shabby apartment with growing debt and waning confidence, his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has quit the struggling artist game, sold out to corporate America, and is moving on up (to the East Side.) Meanwhile, Jon’s dancer girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) is urging him towards settling down outside the city. But could his breakthrough be coming at week’s end, with a promising workshop performance?
Love is like a song in ‘tick, tick…Boom!’
Like the founding father at the center of Hamilton, Jon writes like he’s running out of time. His songs come out in a frenzy, sometimes playful (“Sugar”), sometimes savage (“Therapy”). Their energy is explosive in the hands of Miranda’s direction. The film races from one setup to the next, urging the audience to chase it even if it leaves us gasping for breath. The exciting choreography by Ryan Heffington (of Sia music video fame) gives nods to the Broadway hits that inspired Larson as well as the rock scene that got his heart racing. The cinematography from Alice Brooks joins the dance, panning, tilting, dollying, and refusing to sit still for too long. Like the movie’s motivated hero, the camera refuses to settle.
To all this zing, Miranda brings an incredible cast, stuffed with Broadways veterans in major roles and a bevy of jaw-dropping cameos. For the sake of surprise, I won’t spill a long list of names here. But be warned: watching this with Broadway devotees may cause much screaming or a potentially deadly drinking game if you dare to do a shot during each star appearance.
Among this ensemble, there’s a wealth of wonderful moments, from a Richard Kind playing a hilariously back-pedaling Yes Man, to Judith Light as a scatter-brained agent, and Vanessa Hudgens as a radiant ingenue. But the strongest supporting player is de Jesús, who starred on Broadway alongside Miranda in the original cast of the latter’s In The Heights. With a brilliant smile, he’s an instantly inviting presence, which brings an ease to a role that could be asking too much. Michael is not only bridging the gap between youthful dreams and adult realities, but also he’s representing a generation of gay men in New York, who were ostracized and annihilated by the AIDS crisis. De Jesús’s Michael is not some soulless stiff or tragedy prop. He is alive and complicated, and devastatingly charismatic, whether he’s sobbing through song (“Real Life”) or relishing the luxuries of a posh apartment building. In “No More,” he and Garfield breeze through a duet that repeatedly switches from punk rock angst to old-school musical moxie. The result is an electrifying contrast familiar to many in this shitty yet pretty city.
To Garfield’s credit, he is not outshined by de Jesús. The riveting actor has hit Broadway before, but never in a musical. So his exuberance and mastery of emoting through song was a welcomed surprise. Larson’s lyrics — like his idol Stephen Sondheim — can be relentless. Often, they are a rush of words to precisely articulate with marathon of energy. Yet, Garfield makes every number seem easy, whether he’s waltzing on a parquet floor, bickering in a frenzied country tune, or bursting out of a diner’s fourth wall, Hedwig and the Angry Inch-style. It seems his every cell quivers with the mad excitement and terror that is part of the creative process that brings Jon to life…and threatens to tear him to pieces. That conflict is brilliantly illustrated in snapping physicality of Garfield’s performance and the ego-free sprawl of playing the fool, the clown, and the genius, depending on the verse.
These performances combined with some stellar staging makes for a string of musical numbers that literally brought on chills. It probably helped that I watched this in a Broadway theater that had been converted — one night only — into a movie theater. The promise of the Great White Way swelled in the atmosphere ahead of the show. Then this venue served as a constant reminder of Jon’s goal, to be right here, singing his songs for an audience enraptured.
While Miranda’s passion for theater carries his film into a jubilant spectacle, the final act runs out of steam as the staging seems to run out of ideas. A tearful song ends with rain crashing down, a move that feels too cliched for all the groundbreaking Larson would do. A swanning song (“Come to Your Senses”) is undercut by a cheesy CGI sunset that screams “green screen,” and a bland black dress trips up the romantic mood. These choices might jolt you out of the moment. However, other sentimental touches, like a fondness for filters that mirror VHS glitches, helps set a nostalgic atmosphere, establishing a romantic vision of Boho New York that Rent would reinvigorate.
New York City sold us a dream we couldn’t afford, but we loved her all the same.
On Broadway, Miranda has celebrated New York in In The Heights and Hamilton. Here, he brings to life Larson’s New York with a five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred tiny details: The cramped apartment with mismatched dishes and clumsy furniture, snatched from diners or plucked from piles of trash. The crooked hallways and appallingly thick layers of paint, that cry out of urban decay. The crowded parties where there was always booze but never enough food, and too often some random finance bro, playing tourist.
These touches ground tick, tick…Boom! in a reality of New York that was grotesque and majestic all at once, because it belonged (and still does) to the dreamers, determined to make this place our own. Determined to turn this world — even a Sunday brunch shift — into a stage. New York City sold us a dream we couldn’t afford, but we loved her all the same. Miranda’s tick, tick…Boom! is her rapturous love song, a collaboration between himself, and Stevenson, and Larson, and all of us who sing along.