By Lou Harry

I’m told there were lots of actual athlete cameos in Blue Chips and Necessary Roughness. My son had to do some explaining for me when Kevin Garnett showed up in Uncut Gems. Honestly, right now, I don’t think I could even name a professional baseball player. 

I don’t follow professional sports. So watching a movie where real athletes show up is, I would imagine, a different experience for sports fans than it is for me. 

You may wonder what this has to do with the oddly punctuated new movie tick, tick… BOOM!, now playing at Landmark’s Glendale 12 theater ahead of a Nov. 19 streaming premiere on Netflix.  

Well, as someone who follows musical theater the way others follow the NBA or the … whatever soccer’s initials are … I’m aware that a Broadway buff’s experience of this new movie musical is going to be very different than that of someone who can’t name a contemporary musical besides the one about the guy shot by Aaron Burr. 

tick, tick… BOOM! is a film musical based on an autobiographical stage musical about a guy trying to write a musical. That guy is Jonathan Larson, who went on to write Rent, which would have been a career booster rocket if Larson hadn’t died the day of its first off-Broadway preview performance. (That’s not a spoiler, even for newbies. The film spells out from the beginning that Larson’s candle went out way too soon.)  

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) and with a screenplay by Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen), tick, tick… BOOM! is a love letter not just to Larson but also to other musical-theater players. It’s so packed with cameos that, if you are an outsider watching it with a theater geek, you are likely to be deeply annoyed by the I Spy game they’re likely to be playing. 

“See those two in the focus group scene? That’s Danielle Ferland, the original Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods! And Laura Benanti, who was Cinderella in the revival!”  

When Larson (played by Andrew Garfield) performs at a musical-theater workshop, it’s unlikely an average viewer will pay much attention to the extras in the audience. But the musical buff will be checking off a who’s-who of theater composers, including Steven Schwartz (Godspell and Wicked) and Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home). 

And who better to play Larson’s parents than Judy Kuhn and Danny Burstein?

If you said “Who are they?,” we know what camp you are in.

As for the diner scene, well, stand back while your musical-theater friend’s head explodes. 

That diner scene is also an homage to theater legend Stephen Sondheim (played here not by himself but by Bradley Whitford). Sondheim was a key figure in encouraging Larson. The film not only spells that out but also pays homage to Sondheim in unnoticeable-to-some / obvious-to-others ways. The song in the diner scene, for instance, is an homage to one in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. And a key element in Sondheim’s show — the struggle to balance art and personal relationships — is also a key element here. Art imitating life imitating art imitating life.

By design, Larson’s songs are by a promising talent who hadn’t yet hit his stride. You can sometimes hear the Rent songs struggling to get out. And the story itself would be fairly clichéd if it wasn’t for the eventual success of Rent and Larson’s concurrent tragic death. It’s about a guy frustrated by the actual work he has to do to grow as an artist. He’s approaching age 30. He’s having writer’s block on the final song necessary for an important workshop presentation of what he thinks will be his breakthrough. His girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), has been offered a job that would require them to move … and she has to make a decision NOW! And he’s got some life lessons to learn, primarily courtesy of his pal Michael (Robin de Jesús), who has given up acting dreams for corporate comfort. 

It’s good to see Garfield in a film worthy of his talents after the misfires of The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Mainstream. While his performance here is sometimes a bit too weepy — fewer tears in his eyes might have put more in the viewers’ — it’s strong nonetheless. 

And he can sing which, you know, is a plus in a musical.

In support, Shipp makes the most of an underwritten role, then shines in a creatively staged duet near the end of the film. Judith Light is a delight as Larson’s difficult-to-reach agent, a character worthy of her own show. And de Jesús is eminently Oscar-worthy. 

Miranda’s direction and Levenson’s script effectively weave realism with musical fantasy, recreated stage scenes of the show the movie is based on and faux home-video footage without ever losing focus. And the film is confident enough to know that the script doesn’t have to explain every reference. 

Its on-its-sleeve love for its subject and his world may keep tick, tick… BOOM! from being a great film, but it helps it become a good one. 

And there’s Richard Kind, which is always a good thing. 

Now, excuse me while I go rewatch that diner scene.