For his feature directing debut, the “Hamilton” honcho Lin-Manuel Miranda points his spotlight at the composer who inspired his own creative awakening: Jonathan Larson.
That artist heard little applause in his lifetime. He died at age 35 from an aortic aneurysm the day before the first preview of his breakthrough hit, “Rent.” In addition to “Rent,” Larson left behind the 1991 meta-musical “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” a self-portrait of the artist as an angst-ridden wretch, which Miranda has reverently dusted and polished like a sacred totem for a select cult. When Larson introduces himself as “a musical theater writer, one of the last of my species,” the line prods fans to protest that his as-yet-unwritten rock musical would galvanize a generation of creators. Miranda, who saw “Rent” at 17, is palpably thrilled to gain access to his hero’s hovel on Greenwich Street, here recreated with exactitude — right down to the Scorpions cassette.
“Tick, Tick … Boom!” is an autobiography of anxieties. Larson, played with kinetic desperation by Andrew Garfield, fixates on success. How can he get it? How long can his wallet hold out for it? How much might his all-consuming ambition cost him emotionally? Larson stakes his hopes on wowing producers with a head-scrambling sci-fi operetta called “Superbia.” At the same time, his dancer girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp, primarily tasked to look beatific), threatens to slink off to a teaching job in the Berkshires, and his best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesús), sells out for a corporate salary and an apartment big enough to host the film’s only full-on dance number. (The charismatic de Jesús celebrates his walk-in closet by letting Garfield spin him in the air like a Christmas puppy.)
“Compromise or persevere?” Garfield’s striver croons, convinced that his impending 30th birthday — the time bomb in the title — will mark his decline from future superstar to “waiter with a hobby.” Foreshadowing carries the film. Even the songs cop that Larson was not yet the lyricist he would become. The lyrics dwell on chirpy observations about his diner job, his writer’s block, his favorite swimming pool (another location in the film) and, of course, his prescient fear of mortality, which is the only reason Steven Levenson’s screen adaptation has dramatic heft.
Miranda’s devotion to his idol keeps him from expanding the musical’s myopic fretting into a universal story of sacrifice and resolve. Garfield at least gives Larson an endearing vulnerability. While he isn’t a lifelong singer like Vanessa Hudgens (in a supporting role as a cast member in Larson’s show-within-the-show), Garfield holds up his half of their duet with a capable voice that creaks just enough to sound sincere. As a dancer, Garfield is a gleeful pogo-bopping creature in the homespun key of David Byrne. His gangly limbs fill the frame, and the cinematographer Alice Brooks even follows his lead by eschewing pizazz for the humble grays of a walk-up apartment in winter. Instead, it’s up to a constellation of stage legends to bring the glitz — and boy, do they, in a centerpiece number with so many cameos that this small-scale film briefly becomes Broadway’s “Avengers.”
Tick, Tick … Boom!
Rated PG-13 for unmelodic cursing and a whiff of drug use. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters and on Netflix.