Front of house: ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ is a spellbinding love letter to many mediums

Drawing of a person playing the piano
(Selena Lopez • The Student Life)

It’s difficult to review Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick… Boom!” as just a film adaptation of a musical. To understand what makes “Tick, Tick… Boom!” (2021) such an impressive feat, it’s important to understand what, exactly, it is. 

In the most technical sense, the film is an adaptation of the off-Broadway musical “Tick, Tick… Boom!” — but the full journey of its narrative is a bit more complicated. “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is not one piece of media so much as a patchwork of adaptation and re-representation, the marks of several different formats and narrators littering its retelling like dog-eared pages. Increasing layers of complexity and retelling get folded in with every proliferation of the story, layers that Miranda’s perceptive directing expertly nods to throughout the film.  

The original “Tick, Tick… Boom!” was a rock monologue written by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and songwriter Jonathan Larson. He wrote the show following his inability to secure an off-Broadway run for “Superbia,” an adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984.” The monologue depicts the days leading up to a workshop performance of “Superbia” for potential producers. With Larson playing all of the show’s 11 parts, the monologue conveys the desperate scrambling of an artist who feels himself running out of time.

After Larson’s death in 1996, playwright David Auburn adapted the original monologue into a musical that broke Larson’s monologue up into three parts. This musical received huge success off-Broadway.

An adaptation of Auburn’s musical, the 2021 film depicts the events of the days leading up to the “Superbia” workshop, with intermittent cuts to Larson (Andrew Garfield) on a stage in front of an audience performing the original rock monologue alongside two other actors (Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens).

This is a daunting amount of material to bring to a format as static as film, especially considering the weight of its subject. Jonathan Larson is one of theater’s most revered figures and passed away before ever seeing his musical “Rent” become the cornerstone of modern theater it is today. Larson’s story is not one to mess up.

Because of its heavy, complicated context, the film’s willingness to play with the format — and its skill in doing so — is a breath of fresh air. 

Andrew Garfield’s urgent performance and the film’s eclectic visuals draw the audience into the cyclical neuroticism of the struggling artist’s life. Larson is caught in a constant cycle of experiencing the world and reproducing it at lightning speed without coming up for a breath. It’s the flashy, hyper-speed counterpart to the hypnotic snowy sludge of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” We see Larson slammed with immense tragedy while a future version of himself relays the event to an audience. One gets the sense that Larson is perpetually in front of a band and under a spotlight, trapped in a loop of re-representation. And, in watching a film adaptation of that re-telling, the audience is present for yet another iteration of that loop.

Miranda’s directing is uniquely expressive in its noncommittal yet affectionate nods to different mediums. Parts of the film are conveyed through narration, song, and at one notable point, an early 90s-style rap video. Equal parts gritty realism and whimsical shine, the film’s production design embraces the ambiguity of what constitutes performance. The shots of an older Larson’s relaying of events take place in a warmly lit theater, with the packed audience being filmed from the front and back. At one point, the front of a diner collapses so that its interior momentarily becomes a stage. 

This imaginative storytelling flirts with cheesiness at times, straddling a line between deliberate and unintentional excess in the CGI-gloss of its musical sequences. But ultimately, the experimentation with medium embraces the lack of a linear adaptation sequence in Larson’s story. It’s a patchwork of retelling that transcends medium, the story colored heavily by who is telling it, and for whom, when and why. These questions are inherent in the framing of every sequence of the film. 

The film avoids ironing out the details of Larson’s head-spinning journey to represent himself in a way that matters, leaving the audience reeling right along with him. 

Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. They are a literature and history dual major from Chicago, IL and love everything to do with music, movies and books.

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