tick, tick…Boom! review – Jonathan Larson's musical becomes a note-perfect big-screen movie

This is the musical movie you’ve been waiting for

Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson
Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson
© Netflix, photo by Macall Polay

Whenever dishing out opinions on movies on WhatsOnStage, I retrieve my dusty, rarely-used "film critic" hat, perching it (lightly) on my theatre-nut head where it can slightly re-focus my faculties – screen is, after all, a radically different medium to stage. Given the nature of the publication I have to cater to our theatre audiences, but fundamentally with these sorts of films, a general rule of thumb is that you should quench the thespy flame and let the cinephile take control of the steering wheel.

But the screen version of tick, tick…Boom!, adapted from Rent creator Jonathan Larson's fan-favourite semi-autobiographical three-hander musical (it has been a popular hit off-West End over the last decade) is an ode to the performing arts and those who sacrifice everything to see their passions realised. By rights therefore, the film critic cap has been cast aside – this is a film made for theatre fans.

Gosh darn it Lin-Manuel Miranda, you just can't be stopped: performer, writer, the creative can now add successful director to his list of credits. Commandeering DP Alice Brooks after her work on the big-screen version of his Broadway show In the Heights (she's also due to start work on Wicked soon), the Hamilton creator has no doubt learned via osmosis from the great modern musical film directors – like Jon M Chu, who oversaw Heights, and Rob Marshall, who directed Miranda in Mary Poppins Returns and bagged a ton of awards for Chicago.

Chicago, which tapped into the Jazz club vibes of the 1920s, is what feels, oddly, closest to what Miranda is attempting here. Like a musical inside a musical, he swaddles the story in a framing device that sees Larson (Andrew Garfield) performing a concert to a cheery off-Broadway crowd. Within this intimate gig, Larson tells the story of how he tried to make a giant sci-fi musical, the cringe-inducingly titled SUPERBIA (an unauthorised version of 1984, history tells us). It's all essentially a meta-theatrical caper within which a panic-stricken creative telling the story about his own angst – counting down the days to his first workshop as he grapples with turning 30.

It might all sound relatively naval-gaze-y but thanks to a deft self-awareness and some visual splendour from Miranda, Brooks and production designer Alex DiGerlando, it holds together with an earnest, gritty aesthetic. What's more, the framing device means the notion of "breaking into song" (an issue that has plagued some musical movies lately) never feels unnatural – we're inside Larson's tale, travelling with his artistic process.

Beyond that – there's something tragic in considering that Larson has penned a musical about running out of time (the ticking of a clock is, unsurprisingly, a recurring motif), only a matter of years before his life was set to be cut short by an aortic dissection in 1996 – on the day of Rent's first Off-Broadway preview performance.

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp
Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp
© Macall Polay/NETFLIX

It wouldn't work without a bold, captivating central performance and Garfield, who doesn't have any musical credits to his name (though a variety of stage roles, including the National's production of Angels in America) delivers what can be considered career-best. Not only has he got the singing chops to embody one of the musical greats of the latter half of the 20th century, but, more importantly, he is successfully endearing while also a bit of a flawed prat: one tense romantic scene is a note-perfect moment of mortifying self-sabotage.

Garfield is joined by a wonderful supporting cast: Alexandra Shipp as Larson's girlfriend Susan, facing her own artistic crisis, gets to act as a melancholy foil to Garfield's excesses. Robin de Jesús brings a chipper thorniness to Larson's best friend Michael, while Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry as Larson's two co-stars are dependable and captivating performers.

There's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the numbers: besides the unmistakeable rock-opera-ness of "30/90", "Louder than Words" and "No More" – each clear precursors to the more well-known Rent – Garfield and Hudgens inject "Therapy" (a lovers' spat that feels like a stone's throw from Company) with a music-hall vivacity that shows two performers at the top of their game. Also, when you get to "Sunday", keep your eyes peeled for an unapologetically indulgent ode to the Broadway greats.

What will the everyday Joe Bloggs make of it? Who knows – but for the theatrically inclined (and if you're on WhatsOnStage, that's pretty much any of our readers) it's essential viewing.

tick, tick…Boom! is released on Netflix on 19 November, with a limited cinematic release from 12 November.