If you hate musicals, you'll still love tick, tick ... BOOM! from first-time director Lin-Manuel Miranda, an effusively inspirational, sonically pleasing adaptation of the musical by the late Jonathan Larson that is reshaped and reinvigorated to serve as, with embellishments, the story of his life.
Larson was on the cusp of becoming an icon when he died just as his show Rent was about to have its first public preview, but his success had not come overnight. Early on, he had poured his life into a future-absorbed musical that failed to attract backers. Turning his misery into inspiration, Larson chronicled his failure in tick, tick ... BOOM!, an off-Broadway rock autobiography and, later, wrote what he knew with Rent.
The feature-film version of tick, tick ... BOOM! includes faithful adaptations of the show's music numbers, adding in the romantic and creative drama fueling Larson's work. As Larson, Andrew Garfield is a revelation — a perfect musical-theater nerd whose singing, dancing and acting place him in the pantheon of forebears like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. No, that is not hyperbole.
Miranda's film also achieves greatness, largely because of bold decisions that include a surprise duet and one star-packed scene at NYC's late, great Moondance Diner that (1) I'm not supposed to spoil, and that (2) defies description anyway. Suffice it to say, it has more Tonys in it than The Godfather and The Sopranos combined.
But there is also greatness in other performances — Alexandra Shipp, as Larson's long-suffering girlfriend Susan, is equal parts winsome and upwardly mobile, a creative entity in her own right, one who is not willing to sacrifice her dream in order to be the woman behind the man ... all with no hard feelings.
Most spectacularly, Robin de Jesús gives a note-perfect performance as Michael, one of Larson's gay friends, a young man who thought he, too, was headed for Broadway glory, but who winds up choosing security in an era when AIDS and homophobia conspired to make his choice for him.
The film also offers the dual treats of Judith Light as Larson's impossible-to-get, all-business agent and Bradley Whitford in a wonderfully subtle turn as a warmly supportive Stephen Sondheim. (The night I attended the premiere of tick, tick ... BOOM! on W. 45th in NYC, Sondheim showed up in the flesh at the neighboring first preview of his Company — it was basically a Stephen Sondheim block party.)
Performing alongside Garfield in straight musical sequences, Vanessa Hudgens (as Karessa) and Joshua Henry (as Roger) sing their hearts out.
Tick ... tick, BOOM! is absorbed with the passage of time — Jonathan is freaking out about turning 30 — as foreshadowing of the short life Larson was unknowingly living, but it is adaptable to anyone's experience, to any artist's desire to create until they drop.
And as a film, tick ... tick, BOOM! is thrillingly realized. One of the year's best.