by Theo Sloan
January 27, 2022
Hello everyone, and a late happy new year to all of you! Since 2021 has now passed, and we’re all now facing a new calendar year of movies, I figured I’d take some time to review the best movie that came out in 2021 that I saw, tick, tick… BOOM! There are a few movies that have come out that I didn’t quite manage to see (e.g., CODA, Candyman, The Tragedy of Macbeth, King Richard, Annette), and one of those could very well displace this film, but until that time, this is the best movie of 2021.
tick, tick… BOOM! is a film adaptation of the off-Broadway musical of the same name about aspiring composer Jonathan Larson. It was produced by Netflix, directed by first-time movie director Lin-Manuel Miranda, and stars, among others, Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, and Vanessa Hudgens. The music and lyrics were written by the late and great Jonathan Larson, who was the creator of the original stage show.
I’ve always said that the most important thing about a musical is its music, and while the songs are vitally important to this movie, I actually think they’re slightly overshadowed by Andrew Garfield’s incredible lead performance as Jonathan Larson. Not only can he sing like an angel, but he delivers what is perhaps the best performance of his career. I think it’s fair to say that most people know Garfield as “that guy who was in those two crappy Spider-Man movies,” and if you think that, you just need to see him in this. He’s fantastic at communicating complex emotions with just facial expressions, he manages to never stop acting, even when he’s pouring his heart out into a song, and he effectively serves as the emotional core of the story as a result. He’s also very funny when he needs to be, and his wide range helps make the story and the characters within feel very human. The other actors are also all very good. Alexandra Shipp does a consistently good job as Susan. Her standout moment is definitely the song “Come to Your Senses,” which contributes to one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the movie, and I think it was that moment that fully sold me on her performance. Robin de Jesus is also wonderful as Michael, Jonathan’s best friend. He and Andrew have really good platonic chemistry, something that’s really hard to pull off a lot of the time, and although his arc is less-developed than those of Garfield and Shipp, he makes the most of it and does a great job in his song, “Real Life,” near the end of the film. There really isn’t a single bad performance here.
I also can’t talk about the actors without mentioning the diner scene, which is literal candy for any fan of musical theatre. It is filled to the brim with cameos from high-caliber Broadway stars, featuring everyone from director and Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda (and his father Luis Miranda Jr.), to Phantom of the Opera star Howard McGillin, to Hadestown star André de Shields, to Reneé Elise Goldsbury and Philippa Soo, who are most known for playing Angelica and Eliza Schuyler in Hamilton. This is genuinely only the tip of a frankly enormous iceberg, and rewatching that scene to try and catch every single cameo hidden throughout is an absolute treat if you’re interested in musical theater.
But that’s enough about the actors, because the songs are so good! They don’t quite measure up to some of my all-time favorite musical soundtracks, such as Hadestown, Hamilton, or Six, but every song on the tick, tick… BOOM! soundtrack is memorable, engaging, and quite often heartbreaking, sometimes all at once. My personal favourites are “Therapy,” “30/90,” and “No More,” but they’re all great, and there are no wrong answers when picking favourites, although I’ll have some serious questions for you if you pick “Green Green Dress” or “Play Game.” As I already mentioned, these were all composed by the late Jonathan Larson, who was primarily known for creating the musical Rent, and that’s actually a great segue into the movie’s story.
tick, tick… BOOM! is a semi-autobiographical musical. Larson wrote it about himself and his attempt to get his first musical, Superbia, picked up by a Broadway producer and made into a reality. All of the characters are real people, and the events of the movie are more or less true. Now, events being true doesn’t make them any more or less impactful on their own, but when they’re backed by performances as strong as Andrew Garfield’s in this movie, the truth behind them absolutely gives the whole thing an extra punch. (This is the same thing I think about Just Mercy, by the way.) Anyway, the story takes place over the course of about a week, and it tells the story of Larson trying desperately to fight through his writer’s block to finish the last song of his musical before his first musical workshop takes place in front of a large group of Broadway producers. Meanwhile, his relationship with his girlfriend, Susan, is getting increasingly strained, his best friend grapples with being gay at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and Jonathan struggles with the idea of turning thirty years old without having released any sort of great work of art into the world. It’s not the most complex story ever told, but it is what actually happened, and the writing, performances, and musical numbers all enhance it beyond belief.
There’s also some really innovative cinematography in the movie. This is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first time behind the camera, and I was quite curious as to what he’d do with it. I didn’t expect anything too impressive, because I’ve always thought that Miranda’s greatest talent was his writing ability and wasn’t really sure how the director’s chair would suit him. I was honestly blown away. The most impressive sequence was the song “Swimming,” with the way he used the lines on the pool floor as a staff that notes appeared on, but every musical number was filmed in a very interesting way. A good example is how Miranda combined the flash-forwards to Garfield as Larson performing the stage musical tick, tick… BOOM! in front of a live audience with the rest of the main movie in the song “Therapy” and the scene in the marketing focus group.
Overall, tick, tick… BOOM! is an absolutely stellar movie musical. It’s funny, entertaining, and it has an incredibly moving and also kind of depressing third act. It’s an easy 10/10, it’s the best thing I’ve seen all year, and I cannot recommend this film enough, even if you think it’s not going to be your thing. It’s available for streaming on Netflix right now, so what are you waiting for? Go watch it!