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Review: Andrew Garfield pays splendid tribute to a ‘Rent’ legend in ‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’

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“Tick, Tick … Boom!,” a 2021 movie based on a 2001 stage musical retooled from a 1990 one-man show, tells a simple story with a complicated genealogy. The one-man show told the story of a musical that was ultimately never produced, written by a guy whose next musical became a Broadway phenomenon. And now it’s a Netflix movie, directed by the creative force behind a completely different Broadway phenomenon. Got all that? No worries if not. The movie, blessedly and sometimes blissfully, is easier to watch than it is to put into words.

And that’s only fitting, since “Tick, Tick … Boom!” itself concerns an epic case of writer’s block. Those jittery tick-tick noises punctuating the soundtrack are the sounds of a playwright racing the clock; they’re also a reminder that every life has its own undisclosed deadline. We’re in New York City in 1990, awash in cassette mixtapes and chunky Macintosh computers. That’s Andrew Garfield as the musical-theater wunderkind Jonathan Larson — gifted, irrepressible, cash-strapped and a week shy of his 30th birthday. He’s still a few years away from writing his 1996 magnum opus, “Rent,” which means he’s also a few years away from his untimely death from an aortic aneurysm, just a day before “Rent’s” first preview performances.

The rest is theater history. A “La Bohème”-inspired rock opera about starving artists, Manhattan real estate and the AIDS crisis became an improbable success story, a medium-redefining hit and a lasting tribute to its late creator. Years after Larson’s death, his 1990 semi-autobiographical one-man show, “Tick, Tick … Boom!” (originally titled “Boho Days”), spawned another tribute: The playwright David Auburn reworked it into a three-character piece that premiered off-Broadway in 2001. Twenty years later, it’s inspired the feature directing debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who played Larson in a 2014 revival and whose hardscrabble journey to musical-theater stardom bears some resemblance to Larson’s own.

In pulling together elements from both stage versions of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” and from Larson’s entire body of work, Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”) have made an inspired jumble, a surprisingly graceful Franken-Steinway of a movie. It’s framed by scenes of Larson’s alter ego, Jon (Garfield), at the piano, performing on a stage with a band and two singers (Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry), a device that typifies the movie’s fluid, unfussy blend of theatrical and cinematic forms. (Miranda’s expert collaborators include the director of photography Alice Brooks; the editors Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum; and the executive music producers Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman and Kurt Crowley.) But for most of the movie, we are bobbing alongside Jon in a New York playfully alive with the sound of his music and the rough-and-tumble spontaneity of Ryan Heffington’s choreography.

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp in the movie “Tick, Tick … Boom!”

(Netflix)

We are also caught up in something of a “Rent” origin story, which I hope doesn’t scare you off. As a show, “Rent” proved nearly as divisive as it was popular: Maybe it enraptured you with its earnest, impassioned paean to art, love and East Village living, and maybe it struck you as a loathsome example of mass culture devouring the counterculture (“commodified faux bohemia on a platter,” as Carina Chocano put it in her Times review of the lousy 2005 movie adaptation). In any event, you needn’t have any fondness for “Rent” — though a little doesn’t hurt — to be taken with the affectionately cracked mirror that “Tick, Tick … Boom!” holds up to it.

Some elements from the show exist here in early, prototypical form: grungy Manhattan digs and power outages, hand-wringing artist debates about staying the course versus selling out, the onset of sickness and the grim specter of death. The crucial difference here is that, rather than speaking and singing through his characters, Larson is now one of them, and his presence lends this material a more dynamic focus and a sharper point of view.

As played by an impressively full-voiced, floopy-haired Garfield, this Jon is more than just a persuasive double for his creator and real-life counterpart. A terrifically appealing screen presence and a more versatile actor than some might guess from his tenure as Spider-Man (speaking of extraordinarily gifted New Yorkers with work-life balance issues and a hard time making it on Broadway), Garfield fully conveys the tension and drive of a creative mind in full if sometimes frustrated flower. Matching his vocal prowess with a silent clown’s physical elasticity, he is every inch the portrait of the artist as a young SoHo waiter: Serving up Sunday brunches with one hand and pulling songs out of thin air with the other, Jon couldn’t suppress his gifts as a composer-lyricist if he tried. He’s a prodigy waiting to be discovered — and financed.

The work he’s banking on is “Superbia,” a wildly ambitious dystopian musical that he’s been doggedly writing for eight years. It’s earned him the faith and support of everyone from Playwrights Horizons honcho Ira Weitzman (Jonathan Marc Sherman) to no less a grizzled eminence than Stephen Sondheim (a pitch-perfect Bradley Whitford), whose influence can already be heard in some of the lyrics. A workshop production of “Superbia” is coming up in about a week, but Jon still hasn’t written the show’s key second-act song, and life keeps getting in the way. His bills are piling up, his agent won’t return his calls, and that damn 30th birthday is fast approaching (“Stop the clock / Take time out / Time to regroup / Before you lose the bout,” he sings in “30/90,” a key number).

Three people in a kitchen in the movie "Tick, Tick ... Boom!"

Robin de Jesús, Mj Rodriguez and Ben Levi Ross in the movie “Tick, Tick … Boom!”

(Macall Polay / Netflix)

Worst of all, his dancer girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), has the temerity to be weighing a career opportunity of her own at the same time, forcing them to make a difficult decision. Susan isn’t the only one patiently competing for a sliver of Jon’s attention in a movie that wisely regards its hero with both affection and exasperation. There’s also his best friend and ex-roommate, Michael (a splendid Robin de Jesús), a former actor who’s now raking in the dough as an ad exec. (One funny, energetic number, “No More,” juxtaposes the marvels of Michael’s roomy Upper East Side apartment with the horrors of Jon’s grubby sixth-floor walk-up.) But Michael is more than just another aspiring artist who quit and never looked back. He’s also a gay man living through a devastating epidemic and the vicious anti-LGBTQ persecution that comes with it, a plight that throws Jon’s own struggles into sharp, chastening relief.

To some extent, that makes “Tick, Tick … Boom!” a movie about a straight young white male artist agonizing about hitting his 30s and learning an important lesson in empathy from his loved ones (played by actors including MJ Rodriguez and Ben Levi Ross). It should come as little surprise that Jon’s creative blockage is tied directly to his shortsightedness, or that he’s being set up for a forehead-smackingly obvious lesson — “Write what you know” — that can be splendid advice in the right hands and produce a lot of banal art in the wrong ones. The movie should, by rights, be insufferable. Instead, “Tick, Tick … Boom!” feels refreshingly intimate and specific, idealistic but rarely naive, and grounded in a way that gives an unexpected lift to its flights of fancy. It doesn’t just write what it knows; it’s the work of someone who knows the theater intimately and delights in guiding us through the agonies and the ecstasies of the creative process.

I’m speaking, of course, about Jonathan Larson, who could scarcely have asked for a more loving or affectionate tribute. But I’m also speaking about Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s having a busy year at the movies (with the recent “In the Heights” and the forthcoming Disney animated musical “Encanto”), and whose direction here is a model of unpretentious skill and carefully modulated energy. Miranda’s involvement brings some obvious dividends, including a level of Broadway cachet whose fruits I’ll refrain from spoiling, apart from singling out the welcome presence of at least one stage legend, Judith Light, here playing Jon’s unreliable agent. Miranda’s talent for putting on a show has never been in doubt, but it takes a subtler dimension of talent to make this ostensibly small one feel big.

‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’ 

Rated: PG-13, for some strong language, some suggestive material and drug references

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Playing: In limited release; starts streaming Nov. 19 on Netflix

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