As he struggles to launch his career in musical theater, composer-lyricist Jon (Andrew Garfield) receives a bit of time-honored advice in “tick, tick … BOOM!” from his agent: “Try writing about what you know.”
It’s also the case that directing what you know can pay artistic dividends, and Lin-Manuel Miranda makes the most of that organic connection in his vibrant feature-film directorial debut, an adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical stage musical.
When coupled with the itchy urgency of Garfield’s outstanding performance as Jon, the brio with which Miranda infuses “tick, tick … BOOM!” helps to camouflage the fundamentally clichéd nature of the dilemma faced by the protagonist.
Namely, should Jon sell out and take a lucrative job in advertising? Or should he remain uncompromisingly true to his artistic vision and bohemian existence, and keep searching for a way to get his “original dystopian rock musical” onto the stage?
Audiences need squander no mental energy on guessing which choice our headstrong hero eventually makes. That time is better spent savoring the assurance and visual flair with which Miranda has translated to the screen his love for musicals — for the way they can both telescope and enlarge emotions.
As the creator of “In the Heights” and “Hamilton,” Miranda knows a thing or two about the creative process, how arduous it is, how suddenly and randomly inspiration can strike. At one point, trying to come up with a lyric, Jon writes “You’re,” then replaces it with “Your,” then replaces it with “You’re.” While swimming laps in an indoor pool, Jon sees a musical staff unfurling like an underwater highway. A similar blend of magic and reality underlies scenes of Garfield performing songs from Jon’s musical that melt into his real life — not that Jon makes much of a distinction.
His relationship with his dancer girlfriend Susan (a very good Alexandra Shipp) threatens to become a casualty of his obsession with composing. Having suffered a leg injury, she’s mulling a job offer at Jacob’s Pillow, in the Berkshires. During a long embrace, Jon absently begins tapping his fingers on Susan’s shoulder. “Oh my God, you’re thinking about how you can turn this into a song, aren’t you?” she exclaims.
He is. His musical, “Superbia,” needs one more second-act number to work — no less an expert than Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford, grizzled and pensive) has told him that — but Jon can’t seem to write it.
The photographer Walker Evans once observed that many young writers talk away their stories, rather than putting them down on paper, because they are “floating in the illusory amplitude of their youth.” Not Jon. When “tick, tick … BOOM!” begins, it’s 1990, and Jon is fretting, not floating. He’s about to turn 30, and painfully aware that his idol Sondheim was only 27 when “West Side Story” premiered. The opening words of “30/90,” the first song Garfield sings, are ”Stop the clock,” followed by: “Years are getting shorter/Lines on your face are getting longer/Feel like you’re treading water …’’
Jon is girding for a crucial workshop presentation to Broadway producers of “Superbia,” which he’s been working on for eight years while supporting himself by waiting tables at a diner. He grimly observes: “At a certain age you stop being a writer who waits tables. You become a waiter with a hobby.” (The script is by Steven Levenson, demonstrating a surer hand here than he did with his screenplay for “Dear Evan Hansen.”)
At a time when AIDS is ravaging the theater community, some of Jon’s friends are coping with issues more consequential than getting a musical produced. One of them is Michael (Robin de Jesús, excellent), who generously attempts to get the self-absorbed Jon into a more stable financial situation.
Miranda handles the meta-layers of “tick, tick … BOOM!” — it’s a musical about the making of a musical — with an aplomb fortified by his knowledge of the world of theater, where ambition and anxiety are ingredients of the same volatile cocktail. A certain aura of homage, too, suffuses the film. Both Miranda and Larson crafted era-defining musicals: Larson’s was “Rent,” a rock-opera reimagining of “La Boheme” that premiered 25 years ago, and Miranda’s, of course, was “Hamilton,” which debuted six years ago.
When Miranda was 17, he saw “Rent,” and it helped inspire him to become a theater composer. Though Miranda is the greater artist of the two, a mystique clings to Larson, one of the most enduring what-if? stories of the American musical theater. On Jan. 25, 1996, with previews slated to begin off-Broadway the next day for “Rent,” Larson died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm. He was only 35.
So Larson never got to see the sensation “Rent” became, or how influential it grew to be, and we never got to hear the music he might have composed if he’d had more time. But with “tick, tick … BOOM!”, Miranda has done him proud.
TICK, TICK … BOOM!
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Screenplay by Steven Levenson, based on the musical by Jonathan Larson. Starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Mj Rodriguez, Bradley Whitford, Tariq Trotter, Judith Light, Vanessa Hudgens. At Embassy Cinema, Waltham, and streaming on Netflix starting Nov. 19. 123 minutes. PG-13 (strong language, suggestive material, drug references)