In the wake of Hamilton: An American Musical’s success back in 2015, one might have expected the first feature directed by its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to be an event. The luster has worn off Hamilton a bit since then, especially in light of the critiques it has received for its politics and historical inaccuracy, though it remains hugely popular — its cast album has sold more than 8 million copies without the benefit of a pop radio hit. But In the Heights, Jon Chu’s film based on Miranda’s first Broadway success, premiered to a tepid reception from audiences. Now Miranda’s adaptation of Tick, Tick… Boom!, an autobiographical musical by late Rent playwright Jonathan Larson, brings out his worst instincts, while making some rookie mistakes.
Tick, Tick… Boom! opens with Larson (Andrew Garfield) lamenting the fact that he’s about to turn 30 without feeling like he’s accomplished his goals. He compares himself to Stephen Sondheim, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but he works as a waiter, living in an apartment with his best friend Michael (Roman de Jesús) and dating Susan (Alexandra Shipp). He prepares to complete his sci-fi musical Superbia, expecting it to launch him into success, and as he comes closer to finishing and previewing it, his ego inflates.
As portrayed in Tick, Tick… Boom!, Larson was a narcissist who felt enlightened to make a living off his musicals and attain recognition for them, and while the film is aware of his flaws, it is unwilling to commit to any serious criticism. While told from Larson’s point of view, it suggests that his version of his life was basically correct, especially in its first half. It attacks corporate culture without any systemic critique, blaming the people who work in ad agencies for being jerks or sellouts. (Even so, they think Larson’s contributions are genius.) How privileged do you have to be to think that sitting in a marketing meeting for two hours is too high a price to pay in order to be able to compensate musicians working on your play? Or that irritating but banal aspects of urban apartment living deserve a song suggesting they’re major oppressions?
By its second half, Tick, Tick… Boom! does recognize Larson’s tendency to use the people around him, but the film does little to subvert it. All other characters are marked as accompanists to his talent — Larson’s girlfriend only shows much life of her own when she argues with him, which inspires his depiction of the events in the song “Therapy.” Gay men exist as muses who contract HIV, inspiring Larson, who never seems to worry about getting the virus himself. He mentions not having health insurance at one point, but he never suffers as a result. Tick, Tick… Boom! seems to want progressive brownie points for showing Larson’s anger at Jesse Helms’ homophobic rants and feeling empathy for friends with HIV, but ACT UP and other activists remain entirely out of the picture.
Beyond these problems, Tick, Tick… Boom! also features some sloppy filmmaking. The device of cutting back and forth between performances of Larson’s musical and the life events that inspired his songs is overutilized and suffers from clumsy matches of camera angles. Screenwriter Steven Levenson also assumes a level of reverence toward Larson, which might have seemed reasonable at the height of Rent’s popularity but now looks dated. Given the middlebrow, crowd-pleasing nature of Larson’s work and the sub-Jim Steinman results of his mixture of rock music and showtunes, having characters react as though he were scoring his musicals with atonal music and creating avant-garde performance pieces rather than making the ’90s equivalent of Hair is a bit much. The insertion of a hip-hop video shot in Times Square on fuzzy VHS, in which a Black rapper expresses Larson’s thoughts about the compromises of Broadway, is a very Lin-Manuel Miranda touch.
The film’s approving vision of a New York artist who looks down on others for taking corporate work is somewhat ironic, given that this is a Netflix release directed by one of 21st-century American theater’s most popular figures. While Tick, Tick… Boom! isn’t completely unadorned hero worship, its case for Larson’s greatness is disproved by the cornball nature and dated ideas of the play it’s adapting.