I had never heard of creator Jonathan Larson, of the critically acclaimed and hugely popular musical Rent. I was familiar with the show, having seen the film adaptation when I was 12 years old and off-Broadway production a few years later. I enjoyed the catchy tunes and melodic showstopper “Seasons of Love,” but the heavier and heartbreaking themes were lost on me as a child. I was looking forward to watching Lin Manuel Miranda’s feature film debut Tick Tick Boom, being a fan of his Broadway pedigree. Tick Tick Boom makes it clear from the start that it is not about Jonathan Larson’s making of Rent. Instead, the movie takes a less traveled road focusing on the ticking clock Jonathan feels internally as he rushes to prepare his rock dystopia musical “Superbia,” for a workshop of producers. Furthermore, he is obsessed with achieving the green light for this project before his 30th birthday. He compares himself to the great playwrights who broke through early, like Stephen Sondheim, and the musicians who already had achieved so much at a younger age.
Andrew Garfield stars in the title role as Jonathan Larson. He brings a joyful mania to the role. His singing voice may not amaze everyone, but he imbues his voice with an energy and playfulness that elevates it. Alexandra Shipp is great as Susan, Jonathan’s supportive dancer girlfriend who has transitioned to teaching after an injury sustained at rehearsals. Susan is incredibly supportive of Jonathan’s ambitions but is increasingly feeling sidelined and putting her own ambitions on hold so Jonathan can put all his energy in achieving his goals. The standout in the film is Robin de Jesús as Michael. Michael is Jonathan’s friend since childhood that looks out for him constantly. He is an openly gay man living in a time when the AIDS epidemic has killed many of his friends and lives with this constant worry and shadow over his own life. Robin has a fantastic singing voice, and he supercharges any musical number he is part of. Some of the film’s heart-wrenching and emotional segments involve his character. He is the emotional backbone of the film and Robin de Jesús plays it with great sincerity.
“Louder Than Words” from Tick Tick Boom! (Photo: Youtube)
Check out the song “Louder Than Words” from the film:
The character of Michael is also an important person to ground Jonathan and show him that there are huge problems and loss that he and his friends are dealing with that he can be blind to when lost in the pursuit of musical theater glory. Lin-Manuel Miranda presents a strong directorial debut, and it is clear from his musical theater background and direction that he has a strong respect for Jonathan Larson and his story. The ticking noise that appears when Larson’s mind spirals and he is consumed with the pressure to finalize his musical for the workshop, ramps up the tension effectively. It puts you in Jonathan’s headspace and the obsession he feels to get his show produced before his 30th birthday. He can be self-absorbed through much of the film. He neglects his friends who have been supportive. He puts off giving Susan an answer as to whether she should take a teaching job upstate, eventually pushing her away.
A great scene that exemplifies where Jonathan is at the point in the film is when he tells Susan not to take the job after she says that what she wanted to all along. They embrace, but he is tapping his fingers behind her back. Susan knows exactly what he is doing and expresses her outrage that even now he is figuring out how to make the moment into a song for his musical. The movie’s main message is to show the consuming effects on an artist trying to achieve greatness, and how it pushes away the ones who love you. The music in the film ranges from catchy earworms to less impressive songs. “Boho Days” is super catchy and infectious with joy. On the other hand, “Therapy,” performed by Vanessa Hudgens and Andrew Garfield, is cut together with Susan and Jonathan arguing about his lack of attention and thoughtfulness. The song was too cutesy and simplistic for my taste and undercut the dramatic heft of the real arguing in the scene.
The scenes taking place during the sprint week of preparing his musical are contrasted and sliced with scenes of Jonathan Larson’s live performance of the titular, and first produced musical, “Tick Tick Boom.” This cycling back and forth between the main plot and the later showing of his musical, which was inspired by the events of the main plots’ drama, was inventive. It serves as commentary on how Larson’s work is most effective when he draws from his own life and experiences. This is part of the reason his expansive and complex musical “Superbia” never made it to stage. This a key theme throughout the film and the events are a precursor to his more personal show “Tick Tick Boom,” and his smash hit “Rent.” The film loses some steam in the middle and Larson’s selfishness can feel frustrating in that stretch. The slower sections payoff though when he reaches an emotional crescendo and some introspection when one of his close friends gets sick. The scene where he jumps a fence and plays piano at the Delacorte theater is heartbreaking and wistful. He recalls memories of his friend and how much he means to him and has helped him.
The film was powerful in its ability to shine a light on a creative force of a human being who was taken from this world too soon. It is effective in introducing people with no prior knowledge of the creator of “Rent” with an intimate portrait of Jonathan Larson. I would have liked a bigger role for Alexandra Shipp’s Susan, but her big dramatic song near the end is well earned and fantastic. A safer choice might have been to portray the making of “Rent,” but Lin-Manuel Miranda knows exactly what he is doing. This is Jonathan Larson’s origin story and brings to the screen the beginning of his journey and plants the seeds for the creation of his masterpiece.
3 and a Half Star Rating
Tick Tick Boom
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Vanessa Hudgens, and Bradley Whitford.
Run Time: 1 hour and 55 minutes.
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