Review: ‘Tick Tick… BOOM!’ Stuns on Netflix

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Promotional poster courtesy of Netflix

“Tick Tick…BOOM” provides an emotional punch followed by a hope-filled encouragement to just take the leap and create something great.

By Marlie Kass, Brimmer and May School

For anyone who has ever felt an unignorable call to art, Tick Tick…BOOM! provides an emotional punch followed by a hope-filled encouragement to just take the leap and create something great. 

While at its surface, Tick Tick…BOOM! is an energetic movie musical centered around a composer trying to find success in New York City, to truly appreciate the movie, the story behind the story needs to be understood. 

It began in 1983 when aspiring Broadway composer, Jonathan Larson, started to work on a sci-fi rock musical called Superbia. Despite a few concerts and readings, the musical fizzled out before it could be fully produced. 

Over a decade later, in 1996, Larson’s newest musical, RENT, opened off-Broadway. The modernization of La Bohème would go on to change the face of what musical theater could be, using rock music to tell a modern story about real people with real issues. RENT’s impact was so large that even today, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t recognize the iconic opening chords of the act two opening, “Seasons of Love.”

Tragically, Larson never saw the success of his creation. He passed away at age 36 the night before RENT’s first Off-Broadway preview. 

In the time between Superbia and RENT, Larson created a musical called Tick Tick…BOOM!, which he performed off-Broadway as a thinly-veiled autobiographical piece about his frustrations as a composer. 

This year, fellow legendary Broadway composer Lin-Manuel Miranda took the musical and molded it to a cinematic piece that was released on Netflix in November. 

And the results are incredible. 

Tick Tick…BOOM makes the story blatantly about Jonathan Larson, played by Andrew Garfield, as he prepares for what should be his first success: the workshop of his musical Superbia. Meanwhile, Jon struggles with his personal relationships, the ongoing AIDS crisis, and the overwhelming feeling of his time running out before he can fulfill his dreams. 

Miranda does brilliantly in his directing debut to create a perfect happy medium between theater and cinema. The movie is framed as alternating between Jonathan performing his show with his friends to what is actually happening in Jonathan’s life. 

This preserves elements of the show that would only work in a theatrical format while keeping the stakes of a typical movie. 

One of the best moments is “Therapy,” a typically comedic duet between Jon and his girlfriend Susan, which is changed to be Jon singing on stage with fellow performer Karessa. As they sing and dance, the visuals quickly switch between clips of Jon and Susan having a heated argument. This keeps the integrity and genius of the original song while making sure it is helping the movie’s plot. 

The cast is beyond incredible. Garfield makes a perfect Jonathan Larson, with the time and work he put into honoring him clear. The cast is rounded out by an unbelievable group of musical theater icons including Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, and Vanessa Hudgens. 

Another aspect that makes the movie a gem is the number of cameos. It seems like Miranda called every number in his contact list to create incredible sequences such as “Sunday” or a scene with “aspiring theater writers” that include Grace McLean, Dave Malloy, Joe Iconis, Tom Kitt, Stephen Schwartz, and Shaina Taub. 

Finally, the music pulls the entire movie together. Larson’s genius is clear from the variety of styles and pure energy and emotion communicated through the soundtrack. 

It’s both tragic and wonderful that this movie is posthumously bringing more attention to Larson’s talent and work outside of RENT

Tick Tick…BOOM! is a love letter to musical theater and the life of creators while honoring one specific artist. It strikes a balance between showing real struggles while also being an optimistic and fantastical musical. A knowledge of Broadway and a love for musicals is necessary to fully understand the movie, but anyone can enjoy and be inspired by the beautiful story and incredible, dynamic performances of Tick Tick….BOOM.

This story was originally published on The Gator on January 5, 2022.