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Andrew Garfield is far and away the best thing about 'tick, tick... BOOM!'

The story is well known by now, though certainly no less sad because of it: composer and playwright Jonathan Larson, the creator of the groundbreaking musical Rent, died suddenly at the age of 35 on the day before Rent’s premiere. He never saw his masterpiece’s enormous success.

He also never saw the ultimate version of his earlier work tick, tick… BOOM!, because when he died, that version didn’t exist yet. Larson originally performed it as a one-man show, but after his death, his producer asked playwright David Auburn to rework it, and Auburn turned it into a musical involving three actors. That spawned a ton of productions all over the world, and it’s what Lin-Manuel Miranda has now adapted to film for his debut as a director.

There are a lot more than three actors in this version, and it is fun to see how Miranda alters the musical to inhabit a much more expansive movie world while still nodding strongly in the direction of a stage production. Jonathan Larson’s musical is largely autobiographical, and Andrew Garfield plays Larson, a composer living in New York, who’s nearing his 30th birthday and is filled with anxiety about the ticking clock of his age and his perceived lack of achievement. He constantly compares his own timeline to that of Stephen Sondheim, which seems like a surefire recipe for disappointment, but Larson has ambition. We see him as he deals with this while trying to get his first musical off the ground, and we explore both the creative process and the destructive nature of single-minded artistic pursuit.

Or at least I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re doing. I said it’s fun to see how Miranda adapts the musical to the screen, and on one level it is, but as a movie it’s rather a mess. There are points where exactly what is happening, or what we’re supposed to be learning, is just kind of murky—We jump in time and location without a lot of coherence, characters who I’m sure were important people to Larson sort of come in and out of the story to serve functions rather than be fully realized people, and it’s hard to see this Larson as much more than a frustrated creative twenty-something with the same problems as other frustrated twenty-somethings, except for the fact that we know what will eventually happen to him.

In between all of this, Garfield provides a sort of narration through a stage performance, delivering a monologue and performing songs, which is the most intriguing part of how Miranda adapts the musical. And Garfield is far and away the best thing about this movie—he’s engaging and magnetic and throws himself into the role and the music about as enthusiastically as he could. And at the very least, tick, tick… BOOM! is enthusiastic. But Lin-Manuel Miranda has a few things to learn as a director.

tick, tick… BOOM! is on Netflix beginning November 19th.  

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.