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Original caricature by Jeff York of Andrew Garfield in TICK, TICK…BOOM! (copyright 2021)

Before the Academy engraves Will Smith’s Oscar, they might want to look at Andrew Garfield’s vivid portrayal of theatrical composer Jonathan Larson in TICK, TICK…BOOM! It’s a tremendous performance in a film that is one of the delights of the season. Everyone’s waiting with bated breath for Steven Spielberg’s take on WEST SIDE STORY to premiere, but the musical of the season may already be in our midst. And first-time film director Lin-Manuel Miranda, of HAMILTON fame, has as much to be proud of as Garfield.

Larson was the young genius behind the musical RENT. The composer never got to fully enjoy that show’s spoils though as he died on the day of its first Off-Broadway performance in 1996. He was only 35. But before that, Larson spent over a decade trying to shape a different musical, a musical version of George Orwell’s book 1984 of all things, hoping that it would make him the next Stephen Sondheim in the process. This film is about those trying times for the young man.

His composing efforts, the struggles to make ends meet, all the ups and downs of a relationship with his long-suffering girlfriend…they make up the story in TICK, TICK…BOOM! mixing real world experiences with his musical flights of fancy describing them. The lines blur between all parts too, creating a stylized biography with singing, dancing, fantasy sequences, music videos and some pretty nifty visual effects. Still, despite the phantasmagorical elements of Larson’s world, he uncovers universal truths about love, career, and struggling to survive that should connect with any moviegoing audience member, be they an average Joe or a Broadway baby.

Director Miranda shapes the material, instinctively knowing how to put a film together as cleverly as he has put together shows on stage. His accomplishment here is a nervy, swirling, and twirling film that reminded me of Bob Fosse’s hellzapoppin’ autobiographical film ALL THAT JAZZ back in 1979. Miranda masterfully blends it altogether: his characters performing on stage to talking and singing in specific NYC locations. His pacing, editing, and use of sound are expert, as are the performances he pulls out of his cast. Garfield is extraordinary, but so too are Alexandra Shipp as Larson’s girlfriend Susan, and Robin de Jesus as Michael, Larson’s best friend.

Miranda also tosses in all kinds of familiar Broadway faces to play other supporting parts, and the joy of his casting reaches its zenith in the number “Sunday” which takes place at the Moondance Diner in Soho. There, Larson imagines his cranky customers are all living legends of the Great White Way including Bernadette Peters, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bebe Neuwirth, Howard McGillin, Andre DeShields, Joel Grey, and Chita Rivera, to name just seven. (Miranda cameos there too, playing one of the diner’s cooks.)

Additionally, even with such star quality turns by Bradley Whitford as Sondheim, Judith Light as Larson’s agent, and the ever-effervescent Vanessa Hudgens as an actress who helps the composer workshop his struggling musical, the movie never feels ridiculously extravagant or excessive. Miranda has made a musical adaptation of Larson’s work that knows how to dazzle while keeping us intimately involved in the story of an artist struggling to figure out his life. Dare I say, TICK, TICK…BOOM! is such an accomplished first film, it blew me away. 

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