tick, tick… BOOM! is a musical directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda based on the novel of the same name; it follows the exploits of playwright Steven Levenson (Andrew Garfield) and his early struggles to develop a musical at the professional level. Essentially, this is a musical about a man trying to make a musical, who better to direct such a thing than the only playwright in Hollywood that Joe-average might know; Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton and In the Heights (2021).
Musicals in the 2020’s have exploded. This year alone I could name over half a dozen big-budget musicals that have either been released or are on the horizon; we are in many ways entering a small revival of the genre – which I partly covered in my review for In The Heights (2021). The question that has slowly ticked away in my mind is this; are these musicals evolving with the modern age or are they merely trying to replicate the magic that existed during Hollywood’s golden age of musicals? Simply put, are they doing anything new? Well, if tick, tick… BOOM! is any indication, I would venture to say no, they aren’t.
But does this even matter? A film isn’t required to do anything new to be good, right? Well, this is where it gets a little complicated. tick, tick… BOOM! tells a good story, but it feels shackled down by traditional storytelling techniques seen in countless musicals in times past. In comparison, the largely popular La La Land (2016); a film that was almost one entire homage to the old Hollywood classics, certainly didn’t say anything new, that story had been told many times across many genres. It did however tell the story in a fresh and new way that had not yet been seen in musicals before. Utilizing modern naturalistic dialogue, agile cinematography, and smooth transitions in and out of the musical numbers. tick, tick… BOOM! lacks these fresh characteristics.
The unfortunate flaw of tick, tick… BOOM! is that it is a story directed by a craftsman who has mastered the art of musicals and stage shows but seemingly holds a soft grip on the tenuous nature of film-making. Lin-Manuel composes musical pieces with ease and can set a stage with all the grand theatrics one would expect from a musical master, but once the camera starts rolling, that energy releases as a mere fizzled pop rather than the crackling boom you’d expect from a man of his reputation. It’s difficult to discern whether the issue lies in the truncated screenplay or the ambiguous pacing; either way, tick, tick… BOOM! feels largely vacant of tension despite the film’s title and story greatly emphasising the “tick, tick” buildup you’re meant to feel and the supposed “BOOM!” that never really comes.
There is no doubt however, that leading actor Andrew Garfield puts in impressive dedication to the role. Though the chaotic nature of his character gets a little lost in the noise, Garfield belts, harmonizes, and places what feels like equal dedication into accurately portraying Steven Levenson that Steven Levenson put into writing his musicals. Garfield’s portrayal is not shy or timid, he’s vibrant and shows no hesitation to being as colorful or sullen as the character needs to be throughout the story. Another career best by the English actor.
On the contrary, unlike most musicals, there is no chaotic nature in the technical craft of the film. Perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda lacks the technical artistry that accompanies directing your own film and to his credit, it is directorial debut so there is leeway. Using soft and usually muted colour tones doesn’t provide much value in terms of visual storytelling but there are some moments with purposeful lighting that makes an impact. Similar to J.K Rowling with her screenplay attempt for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, despite being a master of your craft, translating that vision to a film is a completely different practice. While Lin-Manuel has mastered the craft of being a playwright, he doesn’t yet have the technical literacy in filmmaking when it comes to crafting the visual aesthetic for his film.
La La Land has some creative shots and incredible musical pieces boasted by exceptional art direction. Even The Greatest Showman has musical set pieces and shot selection that is in rhythm with its energy on-screen. Lin-Manuel sets up the visual aesthetic of tick, tick… BOOM! in a way that looks and feels like a stage play and yeah, I get that the film is based on a legendary playwright but when it comes to the filmmaking craft, your visual aesthetic needs to synergize with the other elements on-screen. The songs used throughout tick, tick…BOOM! is written by Johnathan Larson himself and was produced by Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman and Kurth Crowleyanda for the film. tick, tick…BOOM! balances musical pieces and songs which accompany the film’s story and enhances the film’s most sincere and emotional moments. Many of the film’s musical numbers don’t have a lot, if any music attached to it and rather opts to use acapella to establish the beat and rhythm of the songs.
tick, tick… BOOM! too easily blurs together with all its many hastily combined scenes and muted tension. While Andrew Garfield plays his part to the best of his abilities, I couldn’t help but feel a gnawing sense of apathy for this character’s journey. All the ingredients exist for this film to detonate with force, but it feels as though it never quite comes together to make it happen.