Tick, tick…boom! is the story of Jonathan Larson, playwright and composer extraordinaire, the man behind the musical Rent. Larson’s life was one of limited time but boundless ambition as he wrestled with the urge to produce his own great musical. Despite not knowing where it would lead him, self-doubt and a highly volatile political backdrop in 1990s New York, he persevered.
Larson never got to see the fruits of his labour: the night before Rent made its first public premiere off-Broadway in 1996, he died of an aortic aneurysm unexpectedly, aged just 35. The tragic loss left his friends and artistic community devastated, but his legacy endured through Rent, which went on to become Broadway’s longest-running show for 12 years. Love it or hate it, its legacy is undeniable and in many ways it redefined the musical genre: exploring stories not previously tackled in mainstream musicals such as homophobia (against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDs crisis), addiction, and social inequality.
Tick, tick…boom! is the semi-autobiographical musical Larson wrote in the aftermath of rejections and dismissals as he tried to produce his magnum opus in his late 20s. The film adaptation uses all Larson’s own, original score and libretto, telling the story of an artist who (prophetically) feels like his time is running out and who is moved to try to create something brilliant and enduring while he still can.
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Release date: November 19. 2021 (Netflix and theatrical)
January 28, 1990. It’s a week away from Larson’s 30th birthday and he’s living in a ramshackle apartment in a bohemian district of New York with a collection of artistic and creative friends. (His kinetic song Boho Days is an obvious nod to Rent’s later La Vie Boheme – the film is peppered with such pre-borrowings.) His girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is a talented dancer and aspiring teacher, and although they’re happy together, she’s facing a choice that could disrupt both their lives. What’s more, his roommate and best friend of 22 years Michael (Robin de Jesus) has left behind his dreams of making it as an actor and has sold out, working for an advertising company and choosing a steady salary so he can move out of the apartment to a swanky suite uptown.
Throughout tumult in his personal life, Larson is desperate to get his sci-fi musical, Superbia, off the ground. An unofficial musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (unofficial because the Orwell estate never gave him the permission to use the material), it’s a little left-field but he perseveres because he’s an artist with talent and a dream. In the tense, claustrophobic eight days leading up to the show’s presentation to New York’s elite group of theatre producers and patrons, he grapples with fin-de-siecle anxiety and the unravelling threads of his own self-confidence. He’s spiralling while at the same trying to reach the creative height of his career.
This film is extraordinary for many reasons. Starring Andrew Garfield as Larson, it’s perfectly cast. To watch him, you’d have thought that Garfield had been performing in musical theatre for his whole life. In fact, he shared in an interview that this was his first time singing professionally, yet he holds his own so naturally alongside the likes of seasoned performers like Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry.
It’s not only his talent but the quality of the songs that make them so compelling. The hallmark of musical theatre royalty, director Lin-Manuel Miranda, is all over this film. He pops up in a quick cameo alongside Hamilton co-stars Philippa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry, but it’s his musical talent that threads through the film, bringing a kinetic energy that makes you want to get up and dance. Like his highly successful and widely-loved In The Heights earlier this year, he pays homage to Broadway as an entity, as well as expressing his clear affection for the late, great Jonathan Larson, sharing never-before performed songs through this film.
The supporting cast are wonderful, with Hudgens and Shipp shining (don’t miss their gorgeous duet, Come To Your Senses.) But for me, the real standout is de Jesus as Michael, Jonathan’s oldest and dearest friend. He acts as a foil, a conscience and ultimately an enabler to Jonathan, being concerned for his friend’s wellbeing and future practically while also encouraging him to pursue his dreams. The pair’s friendship is something that Hollywood rarely does so well: a platonic bond that lives with you long after the film has ended. Michael’s dramatic, haunting solo Is This Real Life? brings appropriate gravity to the moment, and it’s amazing to think that the real-life Larson penned the song: perhaps he had his friend in mind all along.
It’s a film about questions and answers, about the desire to create and the impulse to self-sabotage. It’s incredibly meta – a film about creating – as Garfield’s Larson attends workshops and presentations in an attempt to launch his own musical, singing diegetically about the narrative surrounding his own life. Watch again and you’ll pick up on even more references and clues: it’s a highly sophisticated work. My favourite scene is when Larson, with only 12 hours to perfect a song for his musical’s presentation, goes for a late-night swim to shake off his frustrations. In a beautifully shot underwater scene, he starts to visualise the notes of a score coming together while hearing the ethereal notes of a melody from his cast floating up around him. At that moment it embodies his mental state so perfectly and it’s just one demonstration of Miranda’s sensibilities as a director and Garfield’s as a performer.
While Tick, tick…boom! made its debut on Netflix this month, it had a simultaneous, limited release in theaters. I can reason with both sides: on the one hand, we’ve got unlimited access to stream the film at leisure and replay each of the songs intently (you’d better believe I’ve rewatched it multiple times.) On the other, seeing it theatrically would just emphasise the virtuosic collaboration between Garfield and Miranda, making the music even more absorbing and the characters more enchanting.
Like Rent, this rock-musical-biopic won’t be to everyone’s taste: musical films of any genre can be polarising, and the artistic elements of this film may feel a bit strange to the uninitiated. Regardless, anyone can appreciate the care and attention that has gone into this homage to Jonathan Larson’s life. In many ways it’s about grief, loss and expressing our love for those who are no longer with us: in an emotional interview, Garfield shared how the film helped him process losing his own mother recently, a tribute of ‘unexpressed love’ to not only her and Larson, but to all the ‘warrior artists’ who live life according to their truth. Stick around for footage of Larson as the credits roll and you’ll realise that he lived a very special life and his legacy should be celebrated with a film just as timely as this.