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Film Review: Tick, Tick…Boom

22 November 21 words: Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is a passionate tribute to musical theatre...

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens
Running time: 121 minutes

Downtown New York, 1990’s. We’re invited into the life of Jonathan Larson; he’s rushing to finish his sci-fi rock opera Superbia, navigating his day job, his dancer girlfriend, and a pile of unpaid bills. We see the run up to his fast-approaching 30th birthday, a dreaded age for a "failing" creative, and how this unwritten deadline for success allows fear to control him and his choices – his world is tick, tick, ticking away.

Completed in 1991, tick, tick…Boom! was Larson’s autobiographical, rock monologue written in response to his previous works' relative failure. Director Lin Manuel Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson have reworked the material into something explicitly biographical for this adaptation; “This is Jonathan Larson’s story – everything you’re about to see is true,” the opening voiceover explains, “Except for the parts Jonathan made up.”

The director has firmly cemented his niche; the man who made his name off of musicals has now made a movie-musical based on a musical...about writing a musical. Still, this was an unexpected directorial debut from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Considering his previous works, tick, tick…Boom! is far more subtle in its musical aspects, letting the cinematic moments and character storyline shine without the need for bright, over-choreographed musical moments. It feels relaxed, not overly theatrical and staged. You can enjoy the theatrics and the cinematic stylisation seamlessly with no outwardly jarring musical segways. 

While saying this, if you don’t enjoy musicals, Larson’s most popular work Rent, or are not interested in the world of theatre, you’re not going to “get” this film. You have to be a creative to understand the plights faced by Larson. Without perspective, the weight of the trials and triumphs narrated to the watcher seem trivial and the storyline loses its credibility from the outset. 

Garfield brilliantly channels the theatre kid personality – that annoying yet lovable, childlike excitement only some can get away with. If you’re not invested in Larson’s story, the lovable bit may fade pretty quickly and you’re going to be watching a very different film to the one intended.  

tick, tick…Boom! pays homage to Rent from the outset. We open with the struggling artist’s monologue underpinned by a piano, beginning a long list of references to Larson’s popular work. The narration is arguably the only aspect making tick, tick…Boom! different from Rent. Here, rather than speaking and singing through his characters, Larson is one of them, and he has to be just as vulnerable as the characters he wrote.

An ode to theatre and the creatives that keep it alive

Without the narration, not much would really happen throughout the two-hour Netflix release. The focus is not on the story, but the living of Larson through it. Time is ticking away – the ending is inevitable. What we watch is not necessarily the story of Larson's life, but the way life impacts him. The narrative follows how life makes him feel, how his emotions determine his response to life, rather than simply chronicling his story. 

Life consistently gets in the way for Larson; he can’t write because of all these distractions being thrown at him. The soundtrack, punctuated by a running “tick, tick, tick”, first seems to rise out of Larson’s ever-nearing birthday celebration. In actuality it reminds us that every life has its own undisclosed deadline, ever ticking nearer.

For this reason, it’s not an easy movie to watch. The screen demands your attention and you have to really watch it. This is not a movie where you walk away and think, “Wow, that was good”. It‘s going to sit with you for days until you suddenly go, “Oh, shit”. We survive past the two or so hours. We see that life is never getting in the way of anything – life is meant to be in the way. This is not a movie where the hero has a happy ending: there is no opening night for Larson, just a belief that the unending slog will one day be worth it. 

This isn’t a film for the casual viewer. The film is a musical theatre kid’s absolute dream, and that’s exactly what it’s meant to be. There are so many Broadway Easter eggs and cameos that it takes a good few hits of the pause button to catch them all. It’s an ode to theatre and the creatives that keep it alive. Sure, it’s a tribute to a life cut tragically short, but there’s more to it than that. Tick, tick...Boom! deconstructs why musicals matter through the eyes of someone who loved musicals, and created musicals many loved. 

We’re not just invited into Larson’s life, we’re seeing an insight into the life of all struggling creatives. Tick, tick…Boom! demands appreciation for the hard work, determination and sacrifice it takes to bring art into the world at whatever cost. Will the unending slog ever be worth it? We’re the ones left to decide. 

Did you know? After his death, Larson's family and friends started the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation to provide monetary grants to musical theatre composers and writers to support their creative work.

Tick, tick…Boom! is now available on Netflix

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