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tick, tick… BOOM! is in UK cinemas now and will be available to stream on Netflix Friday 19 November. 

The three most significant men in modern American musical theatre, Steven Sondheim, Jonathan Larson and Lin Manuel Miranda are all present in tick, tick… BOOM! All three redefined the art form, but the tragedy of Larson is that he died before he saw his work achieve notoriety.

tick, tick… BOOM! is set five years before Larson’s death, as his thirtieth birthday and the workshop of his musical Superbia looms. Jonathan is living in a run-down apartment, ignored by his agent, working at a diner and trying to write the song the emotional ark of Superbia depends on. Despite the set-backs, Jonathan believes in his own talent. He’s buoyed by brief encouragement from Steven Sondheim, and introduces himself at parties as “the future of musical theatre.”

Directed here by Lin-Manuel Miranda, tick, tick… BOOM! was originally conceived by Larson himself as an autobiographical one man show. After his death, the production was revived as a three-hander, bringing in his best friend and girlfriend as characters. In the film version, Miranda cuts between a stage performance of the songs with singers Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens) and Roger (Joshua Henry) to a cinematic retelling of events with Larson’s girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus).

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp as Jonathan and Susan in tick, tick... BOOM!
Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp as Jonathan and Susan in tick, tick... BOOM!
© Courtesy of Netflix

As the film’s title card informs us “Everything you are about to see is true, aside from the bits Jonathan made up”. Andrew Garfield has a gargantuan task in the role of Larson: singing, dancing, appearing in almost every frame as an earnestly sweet but frequently annoying man with a parasitic tendency to mine everything and everyone around him for his music. His performance is pitched perfectly, even when the film’s energy and editing borders on chaos, Garfield remains a transfixing presence. In the spirit of Larson, Miranda’s direction explores the full potential of the musical, employing everything from stripped back acapella to glitzy multi-dimensional set pieces with dozens of voices in harmony.

The film’s lightly surreal approach works best when exploring of Larson’s creative process, as seen in a writer’s block breakthrough that takes place underwater, or a crisis of confidence in an advertising focus group. Where it becomes jarring is in the absurd overuse of cameos and its approach to the AIDS epidemic, which is used as a backdrop for the film and occasionally dehumanises victims of the crisis by treating them as little more than set dressing.

Missteps aside, Miranda’s tribute to the Larson is as devastating as it is exuberant. Even the most upbeat of musical numbers are haunted by the spectre of death. Jonathan lost three friends to AIDS and the “tick, tick, tick” he wrote about hearing – his sense that he was running out of time – was prophetic. After being immersed in Larson’s talent and struggles, the devastation sets in when, exhausted, Jonathan tells his friends he “doesn’t have five more years” in him. It’s made all the worse to remember he had less than six.