In his stellar debut as a director with “Tick, Tick . . . Boom!” now on Netflix, Lin-Manuel Miranda tells the story of a boy genius who changed musical theater with a multicultural landmark that won a Tony, a Pulitzer and struck a lasting emotional chord with audiences.
Though the movie could have been Miranda’s own story as the creator of “Hamilton,” it isn’t. “Tick, Tick . . . Boom!” chronicles the short life of Jonathan Larson, the composer who died of an aortic aneurysm on the night before his rock opera, “Rent,” played its first performance in 1996. Larson was 35 and never lived to enjoy a phenomenal success, as Miranda did.
“Tick, Tick . . .Boom!” deals with a 1990 one-man show Larson wrote about his early struggles before “Rent” ever entered the picture. Miranda himself played Larson in a 2014 stage production. But here Andrew Garfield takes the role and does Larson proud.
The ticking refers to Larson’s desperation to make it on Broadway before he turns 30, which is only a week away. Supporting himself as a waiter at the Moondance Diner, he is workshopping a musical called “Superbia,” a futuristic rocker that he hopes will signal his future out of his SoHo walkup. Hindsight tells us that the clock is also running out on Larson’s very existence.
Miranda and screenwriter Steve Levenson capture Larson in the exhilarating act of inventing himself, surrounded by a cast of characters, including Susan (Alexandra Shipp), his dancer girlfriend looking for commitment, and Michael (Robin de Jesús, outstanding), the best friend who’s given up acting to make it in advertising while facing the specter of AIDS.
As a framing device, we watch Larson performing his experiences on stage with a band and two singers (Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry, both fabulous). How do you measure a week in the life of a struggling artist? Miranda does it with humor, heart and dramatic urgency.
OK, it’s a lot. What keeps “Tick, Tick . . . Boom!” from descending into fussy incoherence is the sheer exuberance of the songs, Miranda’s expert blend of stage and film techniques and actors who perfectly catch the highs and lows of the creative process.
The Oscar-nominated Garfield, a musical newbie, is sensational. He erases the line between singing and acting, fusing them into an energy that keeps the movie blazing, from the infections joy of “Boho Days” (this is the life-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo”) to the fretful angst of aging in “30/90.”
Larson gets encouragement about “Superbia” from his musical idol, Stephen Sondheim (a sly, superb Bradley Whitford). It’s the master’s own voice we hear on Larson’s voicemail: “It’s first-rate work and has a future, and so do you ... Meanwhile, be proud.”
“Tick, Tick . . . Boom!” on screen has taken heat for being too inside, too specialized, too blatantly a piece of fan service for theater geeks to which outsiders need not apply. Don’t believe it. Larson’s life and art speaks to anyone who’s ever had aspirations to push limits.
There’s an apt refrain in “Hamilton” (“Who lives/who dies/who tells your story”) that emphasizes how fortuitous it is that Miranda is the one telling the story of when Larson was young and dreamed of glory. “Tick, Tick . . . Boom!” is a love letter to his soaring spirit. Make no mistake, there’s magic in it.