Better sit down, folks, because it’s deceptively hard to explain what’s the deal with tick, tick… BOOM! I know the film was made and marketed as a biopic about Jonathan Larson, but that’s not exactly true. Except it kind of is. Maybe better to start from the beginning.
Between 1983 and 1990, Jonathan Larson put his best years toward writing “Superbia”, a kind of satirical sci-fi rock opera in which people of the future obsessed over reality shows staged by wealthy one-percenters. (Basically, Larson wanted to write a rock opera adaptation of “1984”, but George Orwell’s estate wouldn’t grant him the rights.) Larson obsessively workshopped the play, pitching it to every producer, publisher, recording label, and film studio in existence, but nobody shared his vision of a Broadway play for the MTV Generation. Even after wildly successful readings at Playwrights Horizons, the show was too off-kilter for Broadway and too expensive for off-Broadway, thus “Superbia” was never fully produced.
Larson got through this crushing rejection by developing his personal and professional struggles with “Superbia” into “tick, tick… BOOM!” a semi-autobiographical “rock monologue”. The entire show was simply Jonathan Larson on a stage, acting out his stories and singing his songs with the backing of a rock band. Long story short, the success of that particular show put Larson back to work on a shelved idea that turned out to be “Rent”. Tragically, Jonathan Larson passed away mere hours before “Rent” made its world-conquering debut in January of 1996. Not even two weeks short of his 36th birthday.
(Side note: Contrary to popular belief, Jonathan Larson did not die of AIDS. He passed away from a freak aortic aneurysm, most likely brought on by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome.)
Got all that? Good, because here’s where things get tricky.
In theory, tick, tick… BOOM! is an adaptation of the eponymous stage play. In practice, it’s more like a movie that intercuts between two time periods. One time period serves as our framing device, in which Larson (here immortalized by Andrew Garfield) performs his rock monologue onstage for an adoring audience. In the other time period, Larson is only a week away from his 30th birthday, mere days away from the first public workshop reading of “Superbia”.
In other words, we’re simultaneously watching the show “tick, tick… BOOM!” while also watching the events dramatized in “tick, tick… BOOM!” It’s not an easy thing to describe in words, but it all flows together seamlessly in practice.
(NOTE: A title card at the start of the movie tells us that everything in the movie is true “except for the parts that Jonathan made up.”)
Of course, this particular angle means that certain creative liberties were taken in the adaptation. To start with, this is most certainly not a monologue anymore, as Garfield shares the screen with such capable supporting talents as Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Joshua Henry, and Jonathan Marc Sherman, and MJ Rodriguez. Granted, Vanessa Hudgens still can’t act for shit, but she can sing and she doesn’t have much of any lines outside of her big musical numbers, so we’re good there.
Other highlights include Bradley Whitford, here stealing the show with a comically perfect impression of Stephen Sondheim. Laura Bernanti also gets a brief yet prominent cameo speaking role. But if we’re talking major Broadway talents with cameo appearances, all I have to do is point to that diner scene. After all, this is a movie about Jonathan Larson, it’s the directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and this film was shooting while Broadway was still shut down for COVID-19. Fucking EVERYONE on Broadway must’ve wanted to be a part of this, because it’s like every headliner in the city all got dumped into that one diner for Sunday brunch. Hell, this is the spot where Lin-Manuel Miranda himself decided to poke his head in for a quick onscreen cameo!
But easily the biggest creative liberty came right at the top of the show. In a quick preface, the film tells us right off the bat that Jonathan Larson died at age 35, before he ever got to see the world premiere of the (admittedly dated by today’s standards) musical that would go on to redefine Broadway musicals. Literally everything in this movie is dramatically undercut by this knowledge.
Mortality and the passage of time have always been prominent recurring themes in the works of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Sing it with me, folks: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time…?”), and it’s inescapable here. Larson grieves for his friends who are literally dying of AIDS, and those who’ve already died too soon. He’s deathly afraid of his upcoming birthday, because it means his own death is that much closer. But more than anything else, Larson is utterly crushed by the upcoming deadline imposed by the date of his workshop reading. He’s got all these pieces to get into place, there’s still a crucial song in the second act that hasn’t been written yet, and he’s at once under so much pressure to get everything done immediately while also procrastinating as much as he can. That dilemma all but literally splits him in twain.
On top of all that, there are the money pressures. A man of his prodigious talent could easily make a living in advertising, writing jingles and catchphrases for capitalist junk. Indeed, there’s one frankly ingenious scene that perfectly demonstrates how Larson’s talents are highly sought-after in the corporate world, potentially giving him the adulation and security he so badly craves. The only trouble is… well, we’re talking about the same guy who wrote this. ‘Nuff said.
And again, the dramatic irony in all of this is that we know how it ends. We know that money and material possessions won’t matter to Jonathan Larson in another five years, because he’ll be dead and he can’t take that shit with him. We know that all of this pain and suffering won’t amount to anything in the short term with “Superbia”, but it will all lead to something so much greater in the long term with “Rent”. All of this is gearing up toward a magnum opus that Larson will never get to see, directly building a wildly different theatre world that Larson will never get to work or live in.
Of course, none of this is new material. We’ve seen countless films about the tortured artist struggling to make his voice heard in a vast apathetic world, forced to choose between fighting for his artistic vision versus settling for the safe commercial beaten path, and so on. But all of that takes on a whole new dimension with this portrayal of a well-known artist who’s still greatly mourned 25 years after death.
(Side note: Jonathan Larson would be 61 years old if he was still alive today. It’s tough to even picture what he might’ve been like after 60. Sweet Jesus.)
So much about this particular trope is based on uncertainty. How much time does our protagonist really have? Would he be better off taking the safer and smoother course? Is there any chance he could really find success as an artist and make a difference in the world?
With the advance knowledge of how this ends, all of those questions are made into firm and clear statements. More importantly, they’re lessons implicitly passed on to the audience. Memento mori. Keep creating art. Support your friends and loved ones, most especially those in the arts. Keep throwing shit at the wall until something sticks, because there’s no telling where the next big thing will come from.
At this point in the review, it perhaps bears mentioning that I have my own writing/producing opus, currently bearing down on closing weekend as I type this. As a budding playwright/producer with a handful of staged works under my belt, this whole movie hit me right where I live. I can personally vouch for the all-consuming anxiety of those few hours before the crowd comes in to see a new work. I have lived the experience of trying to deal with unexpected disasters and pieces that are still missing mere hours before the curtain rises.
And yes, I’ve personally had to make my peace with the fact that I’ve spent over six of my best years on a work that has no viable future no matter how well-received it was. I’m perfectly familiar with the struggle of finding the will to keep going and write another script in the face of that massive crash. More importantly, I’m acutely aware that Lin-Manuel Miranda would know all about that from personal experience as well. And he portrays it all beautifully, with no small assistance from Andrew Garfield.
Folks, I know Andrew Garfield is only 38 years old. I know he’s still relatively young, and I know he’s turned in a lot of great performances already. (Seriously, does anyone else out there remember Never Let Me Go?!) Even so, I’m ready to go out on a limb and say that this could easily be the best performance that Andrew Garfield will ever deliver. This performance is one for the ages. I haven’t seen this level of off-the-wall energy coursing through every frame since DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a dynamic performance that shows the full range of Garfield’s versatility, he carries the whole film on his shoulders, and it turns out he’s had a killer singing voice this whole time.
Every song in this show is a banger. If this film accomplished nothing else, it reminds us all exactly what we lost when Larson died so soon. Though of course all due credit must be given to Garfield, Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Alexandra Shipp, and all the other exceptionally talented vocalists in this cast. And I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical partner, Alex Lacamoire, was one of three — count ’em, THREE — executive music producers, alongside Kurt Crowley and Bill Sherman (both late of the recent In the Heights adaptation).
Speaking of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the choices he made as a director, I’ve got to say it was a savvy move for such a prominent Broadway talent to make his feature film directing debut with such an intimate story. There’s something to be said for starting small and working with what he knows. That said, we still get a few heightened moments. This could be something as subtle as comical editing (“No More”) or explicit as CGI directly integrated into the set (“Sunday”, “Swimming”, etc.). This takes some getting use to, but it plays into the notion that we’re seeing these events through the perspective of our main character. Hardly a new concept (Rocketman comes immediately to mind), but I can’t shake the feeling that a more experienced director could’ve gone farther and made better, smoother, more consistent use of the conceit.
The supporting cast is another nitpick. Yes, this is Andrew Garfield’s show and the rest of the cast is only there to prop him up. But when the supporting cast is this good, that could either be seen as a bug or a feature. Robin de Jesus is easily the film’s secret weapon, and it’s frankly unfair how good he is in this secondary role. Meanwhile, Alexandra Shipp proves herself to be a bona fide singing talent and I know that she’s got so much more to offer as an actor (Tragedy Girls, anyone?). In all honesty, her turn here left me wanting more.
Folks, I’m struggling to find any problems with tick, tick… BOOM! Andrew Garfield’s performance alone is more than worth an Oscar nomination, never mind your time and money. The music is wonderful, the themes pack a visceral punch, and the whole cast is marvelous from top to bottom. Even if Lin-Manuel Miranda has a long way to go until he’s the next Julie Taymor, this is nonetheless a promising start for his career as a director.
If you’re even the least bit enthusiastic about Broadway and/or musical theatre, you should’ve seen this movie already. If you’re any kind of artist, or if you’re even thinking about getting started as an artist of any stripe, you owe it to yourself to see this. Even in such a crowded Oscar season as this is shaping up to be, this is one movie that absolutely demands to be seen.