Verdict: A colourful tale of bohemian anguish.
The age-old mantra “write what you know” echoes throughout the work of musical maestro of stage and screen Lin-Manuel Miranda. Certainly, if his previous outings are anything to go by (Hamilton and more recently In the Heights), Miranda has built a deserved reputation as a vibrant teller of musical tales.
Surprisingly though, this is Miranda’s first feature film as director. And while he clearly knows a clarinet from an oboe, the finer details of directing is a different kind of instrument to play. Thankfully, the connection between Miranda’s creative prowess and this film’s musical subject comes to the screen with organic ease. This, along with the fizzy talents of Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) and a solid supporting cast, Tick Tick Boom is a spirited journey through one man’s struggle to get his art on the stage.
Set in the nineties and based on the Broadway musical of the same name, Tick Tick Boom is an autobiographical adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson (Garfield). The film centres around his struggles to write the stage musical, Superbia, a work that would never eventuate as intended. Meanwhile, his dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexander Shipp) is cast to the margins as he frets over getting the work completed on time. A New York winter, sweaty shifts at the local diner, coats, scarfs, and the pained anguish of bohemian lower Manhattan provide the backdrop to the film’s many foot-tapping, colourful musical numbers.
As you might expect from a Miranda musical, peeling back the glossy layers of its well-choreographic set-pieces does reveal plenty of predictable tropes and cheesy dialogue. However, the film does a commendable job of disguising its many cliches, in part due to Garfield’s remarkably attuned performance, but mainly because of Miranda’s unflinching ability to distract his audience with kinetically charged and well-balanced storytelling. It’s unashamed heart-on-sleeve stuff and hard not to get swept away by it all.
Halfway through the film, Larson receives some advice from his agent: “Write what you know”. Indeed, it seems Larson, who sadly died in 1996, would have been pleased that the man to tell his story on screen heeded that mantra and appears to have a genuine passion for the subject.