tick, tick… BOOM!

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

If you did musical theater or sang in a school chorus growing up, chances are you heard “Seasons of Love” sung so often that just those simple opening piano notes were enough to send you from the room, howling—or maybe that was just me. Yet while Rent’s most popular song may have become a bit too popular in certain circles, there is no denying the show it originated from reshaped the musical theater landscape; take it or leave it (ha, guys, get it?), Rent revamped Broadway, inspiring a generation of future playwrights and librettists to pull from the current, messy world as the source of their inspiration. But before Rent, and before his untimely death from an aortic aneurysm the day before opening previews, Jonathan Larson wrote a semi-autobiographical one-man show called tick, tick… BOOM!, which would be revamped after Larson’s passing and morphed into a three-person show, enjoying many Off-Broadway performances before Lin-Manuel Miranda (who had previously starred as Jonathan in one of those productions) decided to try his hand at a film adaptation, where he proves to be as nimble a director as he is a writer.

Starring Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson the character, tick, tick… BOOM! employs two framing devices, the first being Jonathan’s girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) narrating from an unspecified time after his death over grainy faux home video footage, giving us the requisite information about Jonathan’s life before Rent, and the second being Jonathan’s first performance of tick, tick… BOOM! at the New York Theatre Workshop; the latter is quite fun, but the former feels a bit too cloying. As Jon begins to describe the mess of feelings he experienced in the days leading up to his 30th birthday, the camera cuts to those days as he juggles working at the Moondance Diner and prepping for a reading of a new musical he has written, Superbia; from here on out, the film will smoothly cut between Larson performing tick, tick… BOOM! onstage and him experiencing the events that inspired it.

“Lately,” Jonathan tells us, “I’ve been hearing this sound everywhere I go. Like a tick, tick, tick.” Like a time bomb. Like the end of his so-far lackluster writing career is fast approaching as he inches closer to the big three-oh with nothing to show for it—by that time, Stephen Sondheim had already written the lyrics to two Broadway shows (West Side Story and Gypsy), and Jon’s own father had started a bustling family, while Jon still waits tables and writes ditties about the sugar on them. Even though he has a workshop of Superbia the next week, his agent, Rosa (Judith Light), has barely been in contact about it, he can’t write the big act two number he needs Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens) to sing, Susan is debating whether to take a job outside of the city as a dance teacher, his colleagues are dying to AIDs, and his friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has stopped trying to be an actor and instead has become a marketing bigwig, and is trying to convince Jonathan to join him. And, on top of this, Jon is behind on the, um, rent. The ticking clock hovers at the movie, getting louder and louder as everything seems to crash down onto Jon’s shoulders.

tick, tick… BOOM! is most definitely a movie made by musical theater kids for musical theater kids—and I say “kids” because you never stop being a theater kid, even as an adult—but it’s so earnest in its adoration of the art form, so genuine in its awe of the creative process, that even if you detest those annoying theater kids, it would be hard not to be won over by tick, tick… BOOM!. Miranda crafts each shot with care and precision; even if not all of his creative choices fully work (one number in particular recalls to mind Elrond’s floating head in Fellowship of the Ring), they are at least bold, and there can no doubt that Miranda has as much potential with a camera as a pen. He combines the best of both live theater and the movies: there are big dances, there are ballads and patter songs and group numbers, and they are all captured by the camera in a way that, while it doesn’t quite capture the magic of a live show, adds its own filmic twist that creates an entirely new layer.

His treatment of Jonathan Larson, whom he idolized as a teenager, is reverent without glossing over the man’s flaws; this is helped by an absolutely superb performance from Andrew Garfield, who won a Tony for Angels in America but has never tried his hand at musical theater—after this, we can only hope he chooses to do so. He imbues Jon with a fierce kinetic energy; whether he’s rejoicing in Michael’s new and fancy apartment or pulling his hair out trying to write a song, his gangly frame never quite still: his foot is always tapping, his fingers are always playing an imaginary piano. Of the supporting cast, only de Jesús, himself a Broadway veteran who co-starred with Miranda in In the Heights, can hope to match him; the rest are left handily in the dust.

tick, tick… BOOM! is one big, frenetic love letter to musical theater, to the creative process, and to the real Larson, genuine and open in a way that few things are nowadays. Just about anyone who is anyone on Broadway has a cameo, and homages to musicals such as Sunday in the Park with George abound (Bradley Whitford even shows up playing Stephen Sondheim in an excellent imitation, and the real Sondheim cameos as a voicemail), yet it’s not just for the musical theater kids: tick, tick… BOOM! is for anyone who has ever had a dream, for anyone who has ever believed they have more to offer the world, for anyone with eyes and ears and, most importantly, a heart.

tick, tick… BOOM! Trailer

tick, tick… BOOM! is currently available to stream on Netflix.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

In the Heights

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

Back before Hamilton, when Lin-Manuel Miranda was still a sophomore in college at Wesleyan, he wrote the first draft of what would become In the Heights, which would eventually premiere on Broadway nearly ten years later in 2008. While Heights would later get overshadowed by Hamilton (practically everything gets overshadowed by Hamilton, to be fair), at the time it was a fantastic success, running for almost three years on Broadway. John M. Chu’s adaptation of In the Heights serves as an ebullient reminder of why Lin-Manuel Miranda entered the cultural consciousness in the first place, proof that he was headed towards something great from the very first.

Set in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, In the Heights follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, aka John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, taking over from Miranda, who originated the role on Broadway), a bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic one day. He gives us a rundown of his neighborhood in the energetic opening number, including Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from Broadway), who raised Usnavi after his parents died; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns a taxi company; Benny (Corey Hawkins), a standup employee of Kevin’s; Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s younger cousin; and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose confidence and good looks often make Usnavi put his foot in his mouth around her. Add to this group Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter who is returning home from Stanford for the summer, and you have the big players in the cast—it’s a big group, but Chu manages to (mostly) give each their due.

Set largely over the course of several days in the neighborhood with oppressive heat reminiscent of Do the Right Thing, but with Brooklyn swapped out for Washington Heights, In the Heights juggles all its residents dreams: Usnavi wants to go home, Vanessa wants to go downtown, Kevin wants to ensure his daughter remains the one who “made it out.” There are rising romantic tensions between Usnavi and Vanessa, and flames have reignited between exes Benny and Nina. There’s a blackout, fireworks, and a winning lottery ticket, but it’s really about the beating heart of Washington Heights: its people. The film may be culturally specific, but the joy resonates with everyone.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has become subject of some lightly mockery as of late, mostly from Gen Z, apparently no for no other reason than his honest sincerity (and maybe a certain unfortunate selfie pose)—because he still exhibits the type of hope that, for one reason or anything, seems to have gradually whittled over the years since the original In the Heights—and, later, Hamilton—came out. But something like In the Heights reminds us that no matter how easy it has become to slide into cynicism, there is still something to be said for buoyant optimism and unbridled joy.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its flaws: it does buckle at various points under the weight of all its characters, even having cut out certain plots and songs (sometimes to its detriment: cutting Nina and Benny’s duet “Sunrise” and bypassing certain beats for those two makes their romance less effective than it is on stage—if they are dynamite on Broadway, here they are only some powerful sparklers), and there is a rather ham-fisted plot about DACA that has been clumsily shoehorned in—not that we should keep politics and movies separate (that has always been both silly and impossible), but I do wish these moments had been added with a little more grace. 

But after more than a year of being stuck at home and isolated even within our communities, In the Heights is a breath of fresh air: its cast, in particular Anthony Ramos, is so charming that it’s impossible not to smile; the songs are catchy, the dancing electric, the colors beautiful. And after all the anger and uncertainty we’ve experienced, it feels damn good to go back into a movie theater and laugh, and cry, simply enjoy something with other people.

In the Heights Trailer

In the Heights is currently available to stream on HBO Max and view in theaters.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.