'Tick Tick Boom' Movie Review: Lin-Manuel Miranda's Love Letter to Jonathan Larson Is Mostly In Tune [AFI Fest 2021]

Lin-Manuel Miranda had a wonderful last couple of years bringing his musical theatre talents to the film medium. 2020’s Hamilton entranced audiences when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic turned the lights out on the musical theatre. In the Heights is a spell-binding, joyous musical experience. Now, he’s bringing his directorial debut Tick Tick Boom to theaters and Netflix, which is a love letter to Jonathan Larson.

‘Tick Tick Boom’ takes a closer look at Jonathan Larson

Larson (Andrew Garfield) is a 29-year-old New Yorker with dreams of becoming the future of musical theatre. He’s been working on his piece titled Superbia for many years, but his 30th birthday looms over him. Larson works as a server at a diner to help support him while he pursues his real dreams. However, his faith in his life goals begins to waver.

Tick Tick Boom features Larson attempting to juggle his musical theatre dreams, his relationship with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), and his friendship with his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús). Set in 1990, the AIDS epidemic is a backdrop that establishes a tone and the clock that won’t stop ticking.

‘Tick Tick Boom’ is about dreaming and what it means to love

Tick Tick Boom is a semi-autobiographical movie originally written by the subject. The film opens with a message that everything is true, except for what Larson made up. Steven Levenson’s screenplay maintains the source material’s monologue structure. Larson tells the audience his story from a stage acting as both a framing mechanic and a narration. Levenson’s script successfully constructs a narrative that could easily become unfocused.

Larson’s story is at the movie’s core, but its relatable central themes carry it. Tick Tick Boom tells its audience to never stop dreaming and to never settle. Additionally, it explores what it means to love, but not only romantically. Friendship is king here, as Larson and Michael’s friendship truly drives Tick Tick Boom at every stage.

The central themes all relate back to Larson’s work. He’s always making songs about even the most mundane activities and objects to exercise his creative muscles. However, Larson often struggles to figure out how exactly to connect these experiences to his work. Tick Tick Boom becomes increasingly frantic as his life continues to further unravel as the pressure mounts.

A film with no shortage of passion

Tick Tick Boom uses time as a motif. Larson is terrified of becoming a 30-year-old who hasn’t achieved his full potential. The movie’s tension comes from the ticking countdown that haunts Larson. Miranda has a solid directorial debut here, even though some of the movie’s most emotional scenes feel overly rehearsed. As a result, Tick Tick Boom‘s biggest emotional moments come across as a big manufactured.

The film’s most authentic attribute is Larson and Michael’s friendship. It’s rare that a straight man and an openly gay man are depicted in such an intimate friendship. It’s a beautiful portrait only elevated with a career-best performance from Garfield and a tender portrayal from de Jesús. However, Tick Tick Boom keeps up Hollywood’s frequent use of dipping into gay trauma porn as LGBTQ story representation. Stories from the AIDS epidemic are crucial and need to be told, but there needs to be more bandwidth to these narratives.

Tick Tick Boom will have musical theatre fans in pure delight. Larson’s music is beautiful, the vocals are strong across the board, and the choreography is entrancing. There’s clearly a lot of passion in this love letter to Larson. However, it doesn’t stick all of its landings, particularly when it comes to the emotional beats. Nevertheless, Tick Tick Boom is a musical that hits most of its notes.

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