Tailor made for fans of musical theatre, “tick, tick…BOOM!,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Netflix autobiographical musical about “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson, is a celebration of the creative process and the following of dreams.
“Everything you are about to see is true… except for the parts Jonathan made up.”
It’s January of 1990 and Larson (Andrew Garfield) is a wannabe composer, working at a restaurant to pay the bills. He’s also about to turn thirty. Older than Stephen Sondheim when he wrote his first musical. Older than Paul McCartney when he wrote his last song with John Lennon.
Eight years writing a futuristic rock musical “Suburbia,” a satire set in the future on a poisoned earth, he’s feeling the pressure to succeed. “I’m the future of musical theatre,” he says, but his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) wants to leave New York and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) gave up, leaving the stage for a job at an advertising company, making “high five figures.”
Jonathan is struggling to finish his musical in the days leading up to a workshop of the show before a select audience of Broadway luminaries. He’s broke and being pulled from many different sides, but confident. “When ‘Suburbia’ gets produced,” he says optimistically, “I will be getting paid for my music.”
In his personal life his friends and theatre colleagues are dying of AIDS. Professionally he’s distracted, struggling to finish the show, feeling anxiety at the passing of time and his failure to break through on Broadway.
“There’s not enough time,” he says. “Or maybe I’m just wasting my time. And the time keeps ticking, ticking, ticking and I have three days left to until the workshop. Three days left to write this song and if the song doesn’t work, the show doesn’t work. And then it has all been a waste of time.”
Larson’s preoccupation with time, about finding success and not being “a waiter with a hobby,” is made all the more poignant with the knowledge that he passed away at 1996, at the age of 36, on the day of “Rent’s” first Off-Broadway preview performance.
“tick, tick…BOOM!” is kind of meta. It’s a musical about another musical, wrapped up in a movie musical. It follows Larson through the workshop for “Suburbia,” the writing of the songs for the off-Broadway show that gave the movie its title and the experiences that lead to the writing of era-defining show “Rent.”
Music takes center stage, with exuberant performances of the song-and-dance number “No More,” he catchy “Boho Days” and the powerful “Come to Your Senses” and the heartbreaking “Real Life,” but this is a musical whose dramatic scenes aren’t simply links between the tunes. Garfield not only captures Larson’s angst, but his passion as well. This is a story of following a dream, and the mix of aspiration, determination and desperation in Garfield’s performance is palpable. His face as his agent Rosa (Judith Light) tells him, “You keep throwing them against the wall and eventually hope that something sticks,” encapsulates the realization that every creative person must face.
As good as Garfield is, the real stars of “tick, tick…BOOM!” are Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The composer’s more obscure songs are given a deserving showcase and Miranda, brings Larson’s story to life with equal parts reverence and joy.
On a side note, the film, finished and released before the death of Stephen Sondheim, presents a warm tribute to the legendary composer, who offered support and grace to Larson when many others didn’t.