Review: tick, tick…BOOM!

  • Release Date: 11/19/21
  • Where to Watch: Netflix (and some limited movie theaters)
  • Starring: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin De Jesús
  • Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • Summary: On the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer navigates love, friendship and the pressures of life as an artist in New York City.
  • Rating: ★★★★★

I first read the script of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! in my first semester of college. Let me tell you, Jonathan Larson’s opening monologue about his feelings about turning 30 hit a lot differently as someone who will be 30 in seven months than it did at 18.

Larson died in January 1996, just before his 36th birthday. He never got to see the success that Rent would become. He never got to accept the Tony Awards or Pulitzer Prize he would win posthumously. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version of tick, tick…BOOM! really highlights this by starting the film with a narration about Larson’s death that includes a clip of Anthony Rapp dedicating a performance of Rent to Larson.

It is clear from Hamilton, In the Heights, and now tick, tick…BOOM! that Miranda is obsessed with the idea of running out of time and legacy. Of course, those themes are present in the off-Broadway version of the show, but the movie really brings those themes and ideas to the forefront of the narrative. The narrator reveals to the audience that the version of Larson they’re about to see is running out of time. The audience listens to Larson talking about all of his friends who have been lost too young to the AIDS epidemic. This additional emphasis on legacy makes it even more devastating to realize that Larson never got to see his legacy.

The off-Broadway script of tick, tick…BOOM! never names AIDS, but it is a clear presence in the story. The film not only names the disease, but it looms even larger. In the stage show, Michael, Larson’s best friend tells him, “I am sick, and I’m not going to get any better.” In the movie, Michael tells Larson directly that he is HIV positive. The film also shows one of Larson’s friends sick in the hospital with AIDS and news casts about the epidemic. The additional focus on this element of the story really highlights just how scary AIDS was in the early 90s and how ever-present that fear must have been.

The music of tick, tick…BOOM! started as part of a cabaret show Larson performed in NYC. I loved that the film took the music back to its roots and showed Andrew Garfield as Larson, onstage and telling his story to an audience. It frames the story nicely and makes the viewer feel let into Larson’s story in an intimate way.

Portraying real life people is always difficult, but Andrew Garfield nails Larson’s mannerisms. He really becomes Larson. This becomes so evident when watching the videos of the real life Larson that are part of the film’s credits. The costumes and hair also really help to transform Garfield. Bradley Whitford similary nails the look and mannerisms of Stephen Sondheim down to the way he moves his mouth when he talks.

Sunday in the Park with George is my favorite musical, and I have always gotten a kick out of the fact that tick, tick…BOOM! includes a parody/tribute to “Sunday.” The scene in the film is absolutely brilliant. It not includes cameos from original Broadway cast members of Hamilton and Rent, but it includes none other than Bernadette Peters, the star of Sunday in the Park with George herself. The song also ends with a shot in the pointilist style of Georges Seurat, which is not only stunning, but another clever homage to Sondheim’s musical.

The musical of tick, tick…BOOM! only includes a cast of three with one woman playing all of the female characters, including Larson’s girlfriend. It makes sense that the film expands upon the cast of characters in the story. However, there were moments where I wish the division had happened differently. In “Johnny Can’t Decide,” Larson reflects on his girlfriend, Susan’s, goals and dreams. In the musical, the woman who plays Susan sings this song with him. In the film, Larson sings it with Karessa, an actress he works with (played by Vanessa Hudgens). It feels strange to have Larson sing about his girlfriend’s hopes and dreams with another woman.

I highly recommend checking out tick, tick…BOOM! on Netflix. You will laugh and cry, and immediately want to do a deep dive into Jonathan Larson’s work.

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