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MOVIES: Tick, Tick... BOOM! - Review

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Andrew Garfield’s career has been something of a revelation since leaving the role of Spider-Man (he was already good before, of course, just next-level here), and in tick, tick… BOOM! he delivers one of his strongest performances yet that showcase his versatility as an actor, playing Jonathan Larson, a gifted real-world theatre composer who feels under increasing pressure to develop a hit before he turns thirty, having never made it big on broadway. Larson never lived to see the iconic play Rent make waves among the broadway circuit, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, in what – for all his prior work, is essentially a directorial feature debut, uses Garfield superbly to get into the mindset of Larson, to find out what makes him tick, and run with it.

According to a recent interview with Mark Kermode for his podcast, Wittertainment, Garfield spent much of the past year learning to sing, and it pays off – in this all-singing, all dancing musical. It’s framed around a stage play that Larson is narrating about his life with a comedic edge, borrowing from Larson’s own material in a screenplay from Dear Evan Hansen’s Steven Levenson, his second musical this year. The word musical tells you all you really need to know about this one: if you spend musicals wondering why they burst into songs at random moments, Tick, tick… boom! will not be for you – but whilst the framing devices, as with In the Heights, 2021’s other feature that Miranda wrote rather than directed, are somewhat flawed and succeed in taking you out of the narrative rather than immersing you in it – musical fans will find plenty of things to love here as it ticks all the right boxes.

The melodramatic moments are overacted but I wouldn’t have it any other way and leans into helping make these moments work – it’s a well-crafted piece of entertainment that gets the emotional impact just right, as Miranda has been a master at finding the emotional cues over the course of his career so that when these emotional moments land, they’ll reduce you to tears. Much of the conflict here comes between Larson and his friends who are moving away and his relationship with his girlfriend comes under the spotlight - and it's presented in a way that feels entirely real, especially for those of a similiar age.

There are cameos from a whole host of broadway stars, as befitting someone like Miranda can bring to the table. Mj Rodriguez from the excellent Pose is criminally underutilised in a supporting role – whilst Vanessa Hudgens plays the leading singer at Larson’s anticipated workshop. Alexandra Shipp and Garfield have some solid chemistry, but the film doesn’t quite use it effectively. The song numbers that take up much of the narrative are as catchy as you’d expect – Boho Days is an early highlight – and you’ll be listening to these earworms to months to come. Due to the nature of Larson, they feel more off-the-cuff and natural than In the Heights, which could feel a touch too over-produced at times, and it’s part due to the chaotic nature of Andrew Garfield that he’s able to sell coming up with a song on the spot so well, bringing the right amount of chaos factor to the role. It’s easy to see why Larsen was so likeable and why so many people love him as this autobiographical musical presents – it tells you right from the start that it’s mostly true, aside from the parts that Larson made up – almost a cop-out, but in the scale of films that have done exactly the same thing, a minor one.

The film has something to say about the corporate world and soulless Broadway hits – which, like with Under the Silver Lake when Andrew Garfield threw a Spider-Man comic halfway across the room, can lead to this film feeling like a statement on his first time as the character, which ended badly tarnishing his relationship with Sony. But it also feels like a condemnation on corporate capitalism as a whole – with Larson’s friend having sold out and now working for them. Larson has to try and come up with lines as part of a focus group, and does so marvellously, envying the lifestyle of his friend – but quickly stops when he realises just what he’s being asked to sell, and his artistic sensibilities can’t live with it. This clash of commercialism and the need to be successful and have a "stable" career vs. the need to stay true to yourself is one of tick, tick… BOOM!’s most interesting ideas, which it pulls off admirably.

I did feel like the ending is a little bit too neat, like the film got to 120 minutes long in the screenplay and needed to rush everything to a conclusion – it only runs one minute longer like it’s afraid to go too much over the two-hour limit – especially in the info-dumps where we are told what happened to Larson after the events of the film. But what we are given in those 120 minutes is deeply enjoyable, appropiately emotionally-investing, and one of the highlights of the year so far thanks to the magnetic stage presence of its leading cast.

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