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tick, tick... BOOM! (2021 film)

What works as a ninety-minute one-act musical is too long as just under two hours in the cinema, even factoring in for the ten-minute delay in the trailers starting up at the screening I attended: having effectively waited twenty minutes for twenty-five minutes of trailers before anything happened, I’d sat for nearly three hours solid from start to finish. Anyway, tick, tick… BOOM! always and is the precursor to Rent, the rock musical that enjoyed a twelve-year residence on Broadway (it didn’t quite do so well in the West End, though a year-long run is hardly a flop). Despite the latter being somewhat unfinished – or, rather, unpolished – thanks to composer and lyricist Jonathan Larson’s untimely death in 1996, it was so much more developed than this semi-autobiographical storyline about an aspiring composer trying to make it big in the Big Apple.

This film adaptation does well to embellish the music and lyrics with scenery that wouldn’t be possible on stage. Which is, frankly, another way of saying that nothing is left to the imagination here. A diner is a diner and looks like a diner, and the same for Jon’s (Andrew Garfield) apartment, which at one point has its electricity cut off (because, you know, the struggle is real, and all that), and the same for Michael’s (Robin de Jesús) plusher serviced apartment, which is more than affordable for him thanks to his job as some sort of market research executive, I think. Whatever he now does for a living, it pays well, enough for him to give up on his acting career trajectory altogether.

That much is realistic, if regrettable. Jon is mentored, if only occasionally, by Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), although not heeding Sondheim’s advice, at least not in its entirety, has unsurprising consequences when a showcase presentation contains some good showtunes but doesn’t result in any of the invited theatre producers expressing a solid interest in taking on the show. I can’t say I sympathise: the adulation Jon has for Sondheim is palpable, so I can’t really get my head around why he wouldn’t make every effort to incorporate the great man’s suggestions into his musical.

It could have been pacier overall, and for once I don’t begrudge the couple sat on my row who occasionally indulged in conversations between themselves. There are lyrics about writer’s block, and about a swimming pool, which gives Garfield’s fanbase an opportunity to see him wearing next to nothing in the said pool. There are difficult challenges, not least with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), who has a career choice to make, just when rehearsals for Jon’s musical workshop are in full swing. A lot is relatable, whether or not one works in the entertainment industry, as there is no gain without pain, and no pain without sacrifice.

There are one heck of a lot of cameo appearances for musical theatre fans to spot, including Stephen Schwartz sat in the row behind Jason Robert Brown in one scene, and Joel Grey, André De Shields and Brian Stokes Mitchell (amongst others) in the diner where Jon works. The film seems to be asserting that Broadway owes more to Larson than he is usually given credit for.

The cinematography (Alice Brooks) is commendable, with occasional footage in the grainy (by today’s standards) video quality of 1990s camcorders. It’s also worth sticking around for the credits, when some actual videos of Larson can be seen. This is an unconventional musical which denies its protagonist a definitive happy ending, and the harsh realities of life are laid bare in a narrative that covers a wide range of human emotions.

Four stars

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