This performance is the centerpiece of a film that lives in the head of Larson during a turning point in his career: Ten years after moving to New York City he’s still waiting tables at the Moondance Diner and still working on the Superbia musical. And he’s about to turn 30. He has one supporter in the theater world who’s at least agreed to do a workshop of the show, but if the musical is not picked up by a producer there, it will mean eight years of Larson’s passion might’ve been for naught.
It’s perhaps for this reason Larson is so neglectful to the friends and loved ones who are waiting for him to see beyond his own creative frustrations. There’s Michael (Robin de Jesus) who’s been Jon’s best friend since grade school and his longtime NYC roommate, but Michael’s given up the acting bug and gotten a job in advertising—and he has the new luxury apartment he’s moving into to prove it. Then there’s Susan (Alexandra Shipp), Jon’s longtime girlfriend who’s also ready to make a big move, agreeing to teach dance in Massachusetts and hoping Jonathan will follow her to New England.
Even so, Jon can’t be bothered to ever really engage with either of them, as he’s convinced a clock is ticking for him and he needs to express himself—he needs to make a dent in musical theater—before time runs out. Maybe he’s just being melodramatic, as his friends suspect, or maybe he’s keyed into his early ‘90s moment as more and more twenty-something friends are being laid to rest while the AIDS epidemic cuts through New York like a plague.
tick, tick… BOOM! is an elaborate dance between disparate elements before even the often propulsive songs are thrown into the mix. And yet, the film never appears cluttered or top-heavy despite its juggling of even electric musical styles, which range from Larson’s more famous rock opera fusions to his questionable dabbling here in late ‘80s rap, and even a classical ode to Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.
While Miranda’s own first musical success got the Hollywood treatment earlier this year with the light but soaring In the Heights, Miranda’s personal foray into directing for the screen feels surprisingly different. Rather than savoring the sweet and romantic artifice of his own work and more traditional movie musicals, tick, tick, BOOM! better resembles choices made by Bob Fosse in the 1972 screen version of Cabaret. Like that movie, Miranda embraces the cinematic medium’s ability to intercut between musical numbers on the stage of Larson’s mind—or in his rehearsal space—with the real world dramas and slights which occur in his increasingly fraying relationships with Michael and Susan. There is also a similar grit and appreciation for urban decay in the film’s compositions and location choices.
This is very much ‘80s New York, even if the film is technically set in 1990. Despite these folks frequently bursting into song and even running into Broadway stars who make discreet background cameos—I spotted Christopher Jackson, Phillipa Soo, and I believe Patti LuPone on first viewing—the film surprisingly avoids feeling twee or syrupy. There’s a gritty despairing quality here, which Garfield’s perpetual state of agony keeps always at the foreground, as does de Jesus’ sympathetic if exasperated performance as a fading friend.