Title: tick… tick… BOOM!
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writers: Steven Levenson (screenplay), Jonathan Larson (musical)
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus
The unusually named tick… tick… BOOM! is a musical drama directed by Hamilton-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and based on the stage musical by the same name. It is the story of the tragically short life of composer Jonathan Larson, who wrote the original stage play, and the major Broadway hit Rent. Jonathan Larson has always been one of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s great inspirations, and it is not hard to see his passion come through his directorial debut.
tick… tick… BOOM! is set up as the story of Jonathan Larson’s life told from the stage by Jonathan himself, played here by the brilliant Andrew Garfield. Larson talks about his life as a struggling composer in early 90s New York through a series of monologues and music numbers inspired by his one-man show, which was later turned into a musical which this film is based on.
Living in a small and dingy flat with his good friend and struggling actor Michael (played by Robin de Jesus), Jonathan, or Jon as he is called, works long hours at the local diner. But he dreams of one day finishing the science-fiction rock opera “Superbia” that he has been writing and rewriting for the last five years? Or is it eight years? Jonathan is soon turning 30, and while this writer’s block doesn’t seem to let up, he feels that his youth and his life slipping away from him.
The bills are piling up, and the power company is threatening to turn shut the power off any day now. When Micheal gets a job in advertising, which comes with a significant salary increase, he moves into a better apartment, leaving Jon to fend for himself in his small flat. But Jon can only think about finishing his musical, leaving everything else, including his girlfriend Susan (played by Alexandra Shipp) by the wayside.
But one day, the great musical mastermind Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford) walks into a workshop Jon is attending to present his work-in-years-long-progress. And he likes it. Boosted by this inspirational pat on the shoulder, Jon moves into a fever pitch of creativity. Everything else is secondary, causing much heartbreak and grief to the people who care for him and love him.
tick… tick… BOOM! also tackles some of the serious issues of the early 90s. Jonathan Larson lost many of his gay friends to the ongoing HIV epidemic and was an outspoken gay rights advocate. The film doesn’t shy away from tackling this and the stigmatization against LGBTQ coming from parts of the US government. It is done very well and with respect, without getting preachy or distasteful. The pain and heartbreak feel real.
Even when the musical numbers went on (some of them felt a bit too long, in fact), I was easily transported to early 90s New York City. Andrew Garfield is utterly convincing as the neurotic and narcissistic Jonathan Larson. The other actors supplement Garfield’s strong onscreen personality and charisma in various ways, most notably Robin de Jesus as his best friend and gay Michael and Alexandra Shipp as his more grounding girlfriend, Susan. Together, these three manages to bring joy and heartbreak very efficiently.
Speaking of the music, the styles and genres in tick… tick… BOOM! might not be for everyone. For lack of better description, it is very musical, but not as easy to listen to or as catching as something like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton or In the Heights. The film draws together elements and inspiration from most of Jonathan Larson’s work. It is an excellent tribute to the composer and struggling artists in general. And if you liked Rent and other musicals in that genre, chances are that tick… tick… BOOM! will put a smile on your face and tears in your eyes.
Jonathan Larson died in 1996 of an aortic aneurysm. He was 35 years old.
tick… tick… BOOM! premiers on Netflix on the 19th of November.