The Timeless Power of tick, tick…Boom!
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: The New York Times ---- Source
Andrew Garfield is, without a doubt, undergoing a long-awaited renaissance. The English actor’s well-publicized return to the (obligatory spoiler alert) world of Spider-Man has earned him a feverish amount of hype, shooting him back into the public eye at top speed. The resulting media frenzy, however, has very much overshadowed the performance that also returned him to the spotlight, cinching him a recent Oscar nom; his role as late Broadway composer and playwright Jonathan Larson in Netflix’s movie musical tick, tick…Boom!.
This feature directorial debut from Hamilton writer and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda juggles quite a bit of factors at once — the narrative is pretty complex, for one, presented as a musical about a musical within a musical. Its source material isn’t a conventional theater piece, but rather a semi-autobiographical ‘rock monologue’ from Larson, and Garfield’s presence in a singing role feels almost as surprising as his return to Peter Parker.
Ultimately, Miranda's film adaptation of Larson’s 1992 tick, tick…Boom! works. Much like its late composer and main character, it may face up against many daunting concepts, but thankfully succeeds in building them all into a deeply relevant message about the importance of art and of love.
tick, tick…Boom! details the struggle of composer Jon Larson in 1990 to find a producer for his sci-fi dystopia musical Superbia shortly before his 30th birthday. This increasingly tense story is framed within the rock monologue format of Larson onstage two years later, performing the story for an audience just as the real Larson once did.
The addictively energetic opening number “30/90” drops us right into the narrative and into Larson’s mounting fears of aging, emphasizing his relentless devotion to music and art despite his lack of success. With any other director, this hefty concept of integrating such an intricate piece of theater into film might have been fumbled, but Miranda buoys the narrative with his clear understanding of the musical genre and of Larson’s desperate hunger for artistic legacy.
The film sets new standards for movie musicals, leaning into the dynamic possibilities of film while still rooting itself firmly in the theater; the cuts to Garfield’s onstage monologue, the multiple cameos from real-life Broadway actors, and the use of Stephen Sondheim’s real voice in a message left for Larson all combine to write a beautiful love letter to the medium that Larson dedicated his life to. In being as ambitious as its original composer and just as true to his values, tick, tick…Boom! finds its real strength.
Just like its main character, the narrative of tick, tick…Boom! swells with tension after tension until it feels about to blow. Garfield excellently communicates Larson’s passion for creation while also acknowledging how much it takes from him. Larson’s dedication to Superbia damages relationships with his girlfriend Susan and his childhood best friend Michael, all as he fails to pay his bills and living through the 1990s AIDS epidemic in New York.
The AIDS crisis — a period that very much influenced Larson’s life and work, but nowadays is rarely talked about — consistently shadows the film through television broadcasts and through its effects on Larson’s friends, subtly intertwining with Larson’s main plot until it all reaches a boiling point. Larson fails to get Superbia produced just as he learns his best friend Michael is HIV-positive.
It is here that the frantic pace of tick, tick…Boom! finally ticks to a stop, slowing to a moment of sudden silence more reminiscent of live theater than of film. Garfield quietly begins to sing of Larson’s feelings of failure and of bittersweet memories from growing up with Michael, wielding a brutal show of emotional release that likely earned him the Oscar nom. This song, simply titled “Why”, lays bare the film’s rawest concepts; just as Larson fears he and his work will be forgotten, so has history largely forgotten the AIDS epidemic. It’s the emotional crux of the movie, but also grapples with the idea of legacy — what exactly are you, if you’re not remembered?
In our current society, one also riddled by contagious illness and by its repeated failures to value the lives of artists and queer communities, Larson’s words from 1992 ring all too true. Instead of trying to play with the original monologue’s plot, it’s in this steadfast commitment to Larson’s original voice that tick, tick…Boom! finds a haunting power.
It would feel remiss to get this far in an article about tick, tick…Boom! and not discuss Jonathan Larson’s future after it. It’s fitting that in this story about Larson’s desperation to make his mark there are seeds of what would become his greatest work laid throughout, so subtly even he can’t yet see them. The presence of the AIDS crisis, the conflicts between making art and making a living, and the reality of life in 1990s NYC are themes that would later blossom into his magnum opus Rent.
Of course, this is what forms one of tick, tick…Boom!’s hardest gut punches. Whenever Larson agonizes over making the most of his talent before the ‘ticking’ of his clock runs out, most watching are aware that the real Larson would die of an aortic aneurysm the morning of Rent’s first public performance. Rent became one of the most famous musicals of all time and left its mark on the world of theatre forever — but Larson knew nothing of this at the time he wrote the original tick, tick…Boom!. He never lived to see it.
In letting this horrible irony speak for itself, tick, tick…Boom! makes a wise choice. The film’s story is too strong to need purposeful winks at Rent or distasteful hints at Larson’s untimely passing as crutches. In just allowing Larson’s words and emotions from 1992 to speak for themselves, Andrew Garfield and Lin-Manuel Miranda do a service to his memory and to his unwavering belief in the powers of art and expression.
In the end, tick, tick…Boom! becomes exactly what Larson strives for throughout its entire runtime. It’s definitive proof of the mark he left on music and on his generation, remembered so lovingly even thirty years later.