This month’s second film of choice is the newly released adaptation of the play written by Jonathan Larson, tick, tick…BOOM! The film follows Jon, a promising young theatre composer as he navigates life in New York City whilst attempting to finish writing, what he hopes will be, a career-defining playscript. So, does Lin Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut hold up amongst the recent stars of musical-to-screen content (Hamilton, I’m looking at you), or does it fall flatter than my attempt to sing along to Seasons of Love? Read on to find out what our writers thought!
I should begin with an honest disclaimer that I was never in a position to write an impartial review of Netflix’s new adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical, tick, tick…BOOM! I was first aware of the American composer and playwright when I stumbled across the 2005 film adaptation of Rent at the tender and porous age of 15. It quickly became my go-to comfort watch, a rogue turn of events which I think explains a lot about me now, honestly. I subsequently fell down an eight-year (and counting) deep hole of emotional investment in Jonathan Larson’s story. With this in mind, it was unlikely that I was ever not going to love the Lin-Manuel Miranda directed musical. Fronted by Andrew Garfield – an impressive fit for Larson in my professional opinion – and boasting an accomplished supporting cast, tick, tick…BOOM! stands on strong foundations.
tick, tick…BOOM! is an impressively meta production. It’s a musical based on a musical about writing a musical – I said impressive, not necessarily profound. Accompanied by an ominous background ticking, we see Larson coping with his own personal existential crisis as he struggles through a week he has deemed overwhelmingly pivotal. It’s the week before both his 30th birthday (articulated in the angsty opening number, 30/90) and the first public workshop of his labour of love, Superbia. With these major life events as the backdrop, accompanying relationship strife, the curse of the hospitality industry, and the horrors of the AIDS crisis weave a rich fabric of a film.
Though tick, tick…BOOM! is a kind of cathartic scream into the void over the frustrating lack of success Larson was enjoying in the theatre world, it is also an admission of an inability to give up on a career in the arts. His admiration of acclaimed musical theatre personality, Stephen Sondheim, is made no secret of. Tribute number, Sunday, plays a joyful homage to recognisable musical faces – Miranda himself, two Schyluer sisters, Cabaret’s Joel Grey, and a couple of familiar Rent faces are just some of those featured in the dream sequence style track. The film has multiple moments that step out of the reality of late 1980s New York, and a few more that are ambiguous in their grounding. The Sunday number is wholly unambiguous, but we begin to see the flexibility of musical theatre reality when best friend Michael – an actor who sold out on his dream to work in insurance – shows Larson his swanky new flat.
Make no mistake, Larson is a predictably clichéd suffering artist – a deeply self-absorbed and unlikeable character at times. But I find his story and the stories he tells absolutely captivating. I was lucky enough to see tick, tick…BOOM! at the cinema before its release on Netflix and did not expect to cry as much as I did on my own at the pictures on a Friday night. Part of that is definitely down to my prior investment; I could see some of the events coming which increased my anxiety and emotional response. The whole thing was a bit of a rollercoaster – Boho Days brought me the same joy that Rent’s La Vie Boheme did on the first viewing, Come to Your Senses, followed by Why is a devastating double punch to the gut, Louder Than Words is a beautiful crescendo of a closing number.
Spoilers: Jonathan Larson died aged 35, just a few years after writing tick, tick, BOOM! and before the award-winning Rent ever made it to Broadway. I do think Rent is an easier gateway into Larson’s shows, but this adaptation is an impressive success.
(Minor spoilers ahead!)
If I am being honest…I am a bit exhausted by the “struggling artist puts art before the humans in their life” trope. It is getting a bit hard to watch. There is often a choice made to show this story through a romantic lens. Oh, to be that artist, so focused, so clever, a genius. Doing it for the ART *Gestures wildy*. It’s not their fault that those around them aren’t patient enough for them to find their inevitable success. So when I started watching this and saw some of this energy coming in, I felt tense. Then… I enjoyed it anyway.
Andrew Garfield is electric, infinitely watchable, and through him, you do feel for Jon, even when consciously I know he is actively ruining his closest relationships in the pursuit of something that may never happen. (Whilst also being meta-aware that the Larson did find posthumous success with Rent). What I liked about this film is there are some consequences for this behaviour. He isn’t there for a friend when that friend needs him. Though his friend does forgive him, it is tough to watch him realise how deeply he messed up. Then in the end, he doesn’t get Susan back. She is there hiding in the back of the audience, but he doesn’t know it. She doesn’t sit in the seat he reserved for her; he doesn’t get to have her again. I like these consequences as often in films like this; they get it all back again when the artist succeeds.
I have seen the film version of Rent and whilst I liked it, I never really returned to it again, but that’s just how I feel about most musicals. I vaguely knew who Jonathan Larson was, and it was interesting to hear the echoes and suggestions of what Rent would become in this earlier work. The themes were coming through, the questions and the important issues it discusses. Garfield entirely captured Larson’s energy. Alongside the actual video clips of Larson in the film, I went and watched some videos of Larson performing, and it is impressive how the film and the central performance captures and portrays him.
There is a lot in the film for both fans of Larson himself and Broadway more broadly. The Internet has informed me that many stars of the stage, some of whom are seen as royalty, are peppered throughout the film. Some scenes have even been spoken of as glimpses of what the Broadway Avengers cast would look like. These cameos went entirely over my head, but the shots of those people and how long they lingered told me it was quite obviously someone I just didn’t know who.
Rent did everything Larson hoped it would. Even considering the more recent discussions about it, that show changed things. Unfortunately, he never got to see that success, which is a gut punch I didn’t know was coming. I am so glad we now get to see this snapshot of his life that focused on his energy, his light and his determination. Thank goodness he wrote this show so that it could be adapted into this film, so we could hear this story from someone like him, someone who did write something that created change and had a significant impact. So that we know that people like that, who seem so talented and larger than life, struggled too. Even stars struggle with big existential questions. Like most musical things, I likely won’t watch this again, but I am so glad I have.
Before I tell you about tick, tick … Boom! I need to confess something to you: I’ve never seen Rent. I barely know the premise and I certainly know nothing about Jon Larson. I’ve also never seen anything Lin Manuel Miranda has put out. I arrived at this show from a position of complete ignorance with no sense of expectation. I knew not either whether I was going into a new masterpiece bringing together visionary creatives, or Netflix’s latest effort to use big names to buy up my attention.
By the end of the first act, I was sure I was in for the latter. Don’t get me wrong, everything was well produced; Andrew Garfield does a great job as the lead and the staging is fabulous, cutting between Jon’s grimy apartment and the bare broadway stage was a genius way of contrasting the different stages of his life and the relationship between his career and his life. But it wasn’t clicking to me, the songs were hit and miss, especially the more rock-ish numbers, and I didn’t see the story going anywhere interesting. They had set up an entirely predictable story about following your dreams, in which complicated realities are just a temporary inconvenience before it all comes together in the happy ending. The standard narratives of American studios can’t stand anything past the mass appeal of saccharine optimism. After half an hour I was ready to put up an indifferent review and call it a day.
But then things turned around. The story took a step away from the narrative of individual genius and became a lot more grounded exploring the relationship between creativity, labour, and money, and the potential costs of obsessive pursuit of a dream. It destabilised the trope where following your dreams is unambiguously beneficial while still recognising the value of creativity. It also captured a particular experience of being young that doesn’t often make it to the big screen, instead of carefree bohemia, the ticking of the clock captures the sense of being overwhelmed. That feeling that time is running out but you’re just standing still while everything is demanded from you, more than you could possibly keep up with and feeling terrible when you can’t, when you let people down. Garfield really shines as an actor at Jon’s low moments, he captures the energy of someone always on the edge of breaking but has no choice but to push himself further. To me, this story of a man doing everything at once just to stop his life slipping apart is a far more interesting story than that of the Broadway musical.
I became invested in the story; I didn’t necessarily want Jon to get everything he desired, but I cared what happened to him. So was Tick, Tick … Boom! a masterpiece or Netflix fodder? A bit of both, but definitely closer to the former. While the first act is rocky, and some of the conflicts resolve themselves a little too easily for my taste, I’m glad I stuck around to the end. The musical numbers blend together with the dialogue to make a relatable and compelling human drama that offers plenty for broadway fans and casual viewers alike.
Stream tick, tick…BOOM! now on Netflix.