'Tick, Tick... Boom!' review: Andrew Garfield leads one of year's best

Andrew Garfield stars as 'Rent' creator Jonathan Larson in Lin-Manuel Miranda's explosive directorial debut.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

A stirring tribute to the creative process, the very nature of creativity and the need to express oneself, "Tick, Tick... Boom!" is a knockout, a movie musical that grabs hold of the viewer at the beginning and never lets go. 

Andrew Garfield is electrifying as Jonathan Larson, the playwright and composer who gave the world "Rent," the Gen-X smash that put a new face on Broadway in the mid-1990s. "Rent" would come after "Tick, Tick... Boom!" and "Tick" is largely about the long path to get to "Rent," and all the hurdles and self-doubt and quarter-life crises along the way. 

Andrew Garfield in "Tick, Tick... Boom!"

There is indeed a ticking clock in "Tick, Tick... Boom!" and it's a countdown to age 30, the age by which, when you're in your 20s, you think you should have everything figured out. Stephen Sondheim wrote "West Side Story" by age 27, Ken Griffey Jr. was already a three-time All-Star and had appeared on "The Simpsons" by age 23 — there's always someone out there who's done something great by a certain age, and when you're still trying to make your mark, those signposts can be torture. 

Larson wants his voice to be heard and he's laboring over a future-set project called "Superbia," an outer space musical that redefines high concept. He's got talent, he hears music in the everyday rhythms of life and he can write a song about anything, he's just looking for the right project where it can all be channeled. 

Meanwhile, he's a waiter at a diner who is desperately hanging on to a fading dream. His roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus) moves out and heads uptown, grabbing a job in the advertising field that pays actual money. And his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) takes a job in the Berkshires and wants him to come with her, which would mean giving up on his dream but taking hold of something real. What's a guy on the brink of 30 with a ticking timebomb in his head to do? 

In his directorial debut, "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda — a guy who knows a thing or two about not throwing away one's shot — paints a loving portrait of Larson and the romance of being a struggling artist in New York in the '90s. He fills the film with Easter eggs for fans of Larson and cameos from Broadway stars, and winds up with an all-out celebration of musical theater that transcends musical theater and becomes a celebration of life.

"Tick, Tick... Boom!" is Larson's own semiautobiographical work, so there's fiction at play — "everything you're about to see is true," a note reads at the opening of the film, "except for the parts that Jonathan made up" — but what emerges is a memorial to his spirit, his talent and his zest for life. In short, it's a blast. 



'Tick, Tick... Boom!'


Not rated: language, sexuality, adult situations

Running time: 115 minutes

On Netflix