To properly appreciate musical theater, you need to see the performers sweat. Theater isn’t like pure cinema, where emotion is created through the edit, the subliminal manipulation of time and space. Watching a musical means occasionally stepping back to marvel at the hard work the performers are putting in. That’s why the actors come out for curtain calls: to honor the reality that these are human beings working hard for your enjoyment.
“Tick Tick…Boom!,” an invigorating movie musical created by the late Jonathan Larson (who went on to create “Rent”), understands this. It overflows with theater-kid energy, that indelible combination of athleticism and ebullience. It’s an autobiographical musical about Larson himself, a grown-up theater kid staring down his thirtieth birthday as an unproduced composer in early ‘90s New York. He’s living the struggling artist life: refusing to compromise his artistic vision, ignoring his adorable and supportive girlfriend, and blatantly judging his friends who leave their artistic dreams behind to work for corporate America. “This is the life,” he croons over and over at a house party, and he sounds like a guy working overtime to convince himself he’s making the right choices.
A talented artist struggling to balance his personal life with his professional dreams, Jonathan is not exactly an original character, but as played by Andrew Garfield, he manages to conquer the clichés. As a performer, Garfield projects an earnestness constantly threatening to tip over into schmaltz, but he succeeds because he rarely plays against type and directors know how to use him. Perfectly cast as religious idealists in “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Silence,” Garfield is at his best when playing a character who sets himself apart from – and maybe even above – those around him.
Larson, a fundamentalist for the theater, is his ideal role, and Garfield throws himself into the holy challenge, particularly in the film’s standout musical numbers. He hits the high notes with confidence and nails every dance move. “Therapy,” a ventriloquist-inflected number that chronicles an argument between Jonathan and his girlfriend, may be a blatant rip-off of “They Both Reached for the Gun” from “Chicago,” but Garfield and his scene partner Vanessa Hudgens (playing his girlfriend in the play Jonathan is writing about his life) perform it with such enthusiasm that you’re likely to forget about Roxie Hart altogether.
The rest of the credit goes to Miranda, who has been struggling to find an identity in his post-”Hamilton” career, but proves himself an adept director of musicals in this first directorial effort. Much like his author and his star, Miranda infuses the film with sparkling energy, a breakneck pace that skims over the film’s dead spots, and enough standout musical numbers to put a smile on the face of even the most hardened cynic. He shows an expert feel for the audience in “Sunday,” a diner-set number about brunch that features winking cameos from one Broadway legend after another. It’s a delicate balance. Too much homage would cause the viewer to emotionally detach, but Miranda always knows just what button to push and for how long.
It’s all enough to overcome its unfortunate nods to the exigencies of our era. Explicitly and implicitly, “Tick Tick…Boom!” is something of a prequel to “Rent.” References to Larson’s tragic death and the musical’s subsequent success bookend the film, while certain characters feel like prototypes for ones made more famous in his later work. In a Hollywood faithfully devoted to intellectual property, this may have been the only way to get the film made, but it occasionally makes “Tick Tick…Boom!” feel insignificant. Like a trial run for the real work that would follow.
On its own terms, however, it’s actually much better than “Rent,” at least the film version. The 2005 Christopher Columbus adaptation never rose above its cliches, while here Miranda infuses every moment with some sort of meaning: emotional, narrative, historical, or just musical. And in the few moments that fail him, you can still appreciate the film as a hard-earned labor of love. It’s the auspicious debut of a director paying homage to a genre’s past, while charting a clear course for its future.
“TIck Tick…Boom!” is in theaters now and will stream on Netflix starting November 24.