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The big backstory of Netflix’s musical Tick, Tick… Boom! is as vital as its actual plot

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first movie salutes his inspiration, Rent creator Jonathan Larson, with Larson’s own words

Andrew Garfield in Netflix’s Jonathan Larson musical Tick, Tick… Boom! Photo: Macall Polay/Netflix

This review of Tick, Tick… Boom! originally ran in conjunction with its release in theaters. It has been updated for the film’s Netflix release.

In 1990, Rent writer-composer Jonathan Larson turned 30 years old. At the time, he was living in a spartan loft in Lower Manhattan, near SoHo, and working part-time in a diner while developing a science-fiction musical called Superbia, based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the eight years since he graduated from Adelphi University on Long Island, Larson had developed a reputation in New York’s theatrical community as a promising young talent. But he was broke, and frustrated by how slowly his career was moving. He was still three years away from the first workshop of Rent, a groundbreaking, smash-success musical which wouldn’t officially premiere until 1996 — on the night Larson unexpectedly died.

In 1990, Lin-Manuel Miranda turned 10 years old. He was living with his parents in Upper Manhattan, near Washington Heights, and attending an exclusive elementary school geared toward gifted students. By the end of the decade, he’d be at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where — inspired by Rent — he’d start developing the musical that would become the Broadway hit In the Heights. Miranda was 28 years old when In the Heights won the Best Musical award at the Tonys. By age 30, he’d be one of the most in-demand talents in musical theater, and making inroads as a TV and movie actor and writer. At age 35 — Larson’s age when he died — Miranda was basking in the accolades for his Broadway smash Hamilton.

Now at 41, Miranda has directed his first feature film: an adaptation of one of Larson’s pre-Rent theater pieces, the autobiographical Tick, Tick… Boom! (The movie opened in limited theatrical release Nov. 12, and it’s now streaming on Netflix.) Working with screenwriter Steven Levenson — who wrote the Tony-winning book for Dear Evan Hansen and also helped run the TV miniseries Fosse/Verdon alongside Miranda’s longtime collaborator Thomas Kail — Miranda has refashioned Larson’s work into more of a straightforward biopic with songs. The film tells the story of how the composer made it through a pivotal year of his life, when he came close to abandoning his Broadway dreams.

Andrew Garfield flops down by his keyboard in Netflix’s Jonathan Larson musical Tick, Tick… Boom! Photo: Macall Polay/Netflix

Andrew Garfield plays “Jon,” who at the start of Tick, Tick… Boom! is sweating two big deadlines: his 30th birthday, and an industry showcase for his work-in-progress Superbia. The movie is essentially a collection of vignettes from Jon’s daily life, showing him shuttling back and forth between the Moondance Diner and the cluttered workspace in his loft, pausing occasionally to spend time with his neglected girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús).

Susan is a dancer looking for opportunities to make a living somewhere other than the exorbitantly expensive New York. Michael gave up acting to work in advertising, and tries to help Jon make extra money doing market research, while suggesting that he could maybe channel his talents in a more commercial direction. Jon remains committed to finishing Superbia, though, encouraged by the positive feedback he’s gotten from Broadway legends like Stephen Sondheim (played perfectly by Bradley Whitford).

Garfield doesn’t have a background in musical theater, but he’s long been a master at playing guys like Jon: good-hearted but stubborn, and willing to pursue their obsessions even when it makes them difficult to live with. (See: The Amazing Spider-Man, 99 Homes, Hacksaw Ridge, Silence, Under the Silver Lake… the list goes on.) Garfield has a fine enough voice for this role; after all, Larson himself wasn’t known primarily as a singer.

What Garfield really brings to the part is a sense of Jon’s boundless enthusiasm for all kinds of art and culture. He plays the character as someone who processes everything, from theater to rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop, cinema, and politics, in terms of how he can turn it into a song. One of the movie’s major subplots is that while Jon is sweating out the reaction to Superbia, he’s also gathering notes on ’90s New York bohemia and the AIDS crisis, which would eventually make it into Rent.

A boho-looking crowd hangs out in Netflix’s Jonathan Larson musical Tick, Tick… Boom! Photo: Macall Polay/Netflix

But there’s more going on here than mere biography. Miranda’s Tick, Tick… Boom! is a wistful, somewhat rueful homage to a creator who never got to enjoy the payoff for his many hard years of toiling in relative obscurity. And it’s a personal reflection on the nebulousness of New York in 1990, a time when the flourishing creativity of the 1980s was coming to an end, and the next generation of artists had yet to emerge. Not everything Miranda and Levenson try with this film works, but even at its messiest, the movie is always meaningful.

In that way, it’s a good adaptation of the source material, which is all over the place. Larson initially wrote it as a reaction to his struggle to get Superbia produced. He performed it in different forms as what he called “a rock monologue,” combining an eclectic set of pop songs with humorous anecdotes about his struggles. After Rent became a mammoth hit, Larson’s friend Victoria Leacock asked playwright David Auburn (best-known for Proof) to re-conceive Tick, Tick… Boom! as a small-scale stage musical with a three-person cast, which eventually debuted Off-Broadway in 2001. This version has since been performed all over the world — including in a 2014 limited run with Miranda in the lead, about eight months before Hamilton premiered.

In other words, there is no “official” Tick, Tick… Boom! — not even this film. The show began life as a something like a sketchbook, with Larson trying out different ways to turn real life into theater, as he worked on Rent (a project first brought to him in 1989 by playwright Billy Aronson, who first had the idea of converting Puccini’s opera La Bohème into a story about late-20th-century New York). Taking their cues from what the original concert form of Tick, Tick… Boom! set out to do, Miranda and Levenson scrap some elements from the Auburn musical in order to fit in more about Larson and the city.

This choice sacrifices some narrative drive. At times, this film feels more like a collection of setpieces than a proper story. And since the filmmakers are mostly limited to the songs Larson wrote for this piece, they don’t have the numbers they need to get from the failure of Superbia to what came after. As a result, the movie’s ending feels a little rushed.

But from moment to moment, this version of Tick, Tick… Boom! is heartfelt and moving. It’s a generous two-hour thank-you note from Miranda to the man who helped make his career possible. Several of the songs are show-stoppers, including the ballad “Why” (a touching reflection on Jon’s lifelong friendship with Michael), the jaunty ditty “Boho Days” (which is like Rent compressed into three minutes), the comedic “Therapy” (a dissection of a broken relationship, in the style of Kander and Ebb musicals like Chicago and Cabaret), and “Sunday” (a Sondheim-derived ode to brunch with an impressive list of cameos Netflix has asked critics not to reveal). Musical-theater buffs are going to want to watch the best numbers from this film on repeat, and there are many of them.

Andrew Garfield and Robin de Jesus sit together in Netflix’s Jonathan Larson musical Tick, Tick… Boom! Photo: Macall Polay/Netflix

But people who can keenly remember 1990 should be just as affected by Miranda and his design team’s attention to detail. At one point, they re-create the look and feel of a Yo! MTV Raps era video. At another, they pan across Jon’s collection of books, tapes, and vinyl LPs, which are heavy on Broadway, but also include a fair amount of 1980s punk and classic rock. The movie also captures how special it was whenever PBS re-ran the American Playhouse episode featuring the original Broadway production of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. The nostalgic pangs of a late-’80s/early-’90s theater nerd resound.

When Larson was writing and rewriting Tick, Tick… Boom!, he was still smarting from the rejection of Superbia and lamenting his lack of prospects. While the title of the piece suggested his time was running out, he had no idea he’d be dead a little more than five years later. What Miranda brings to his version is the gift of hindsight. Where Larson saw dead ends, Miranda can see new pathways opening up. One man’s vision of a New York in decline is another’s recollection of a city about to transform. What both Larson and Miranda understand, though, is that artists have to keep moving forward, making a mark where and while they can, before they run out of tomorrows.

Tick, Tick… Boom! opens in limited theatrical release on Nov. 12, and debuts on Netflix Nov. 19.