The Genius of Jonathan Larson Elegantly Revealed In ‘tick, tick…BOOM’ (FILM REVIEW)


Jonathan Larson never lived to see his impact. The writer and creator of Rent, one of Broadway’s most enduring and beloved musicals, died suddenly the night before his play made its grand debut. He never lived to see his Tony Awards, his Pulitzer, or the worldwide acclaim he very rightly deserved. For years, he struggled to bring his vision of what musical theater could be to life, suffering from setbacks and false starts and all the obstacles that exist between an artist and their dreams. He’d never know just how wildly he would succeed.

Before Rent, however, Larson channeled his frustrations into the one-man show, tick, tick…Boom!, an autobiographical musical monologue hybrid that gave 1990 audiences a small taste of the kind of work he wanted to do. While acclaimed in its own right in its day, the show, sadly, wouldn’t receive wider attention until after his death, when playwright David Auburn restructured the monologue into a three-person show that would wind up being another worldwide hit (albeit, one with significantly less name recognition than Rent).

Director Lin-Manuel Miranda, working with writer Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen), has restructured the narrative even further, turning tick, tick…Boom! into a fully cast cinematic experience. Miranda, who makes his feature directorial debut, owes no small debt to Larson for widening the possibilities for musical theater and changing the stalwart notions of what Broadway should be. That reverence oozes throughout his adaptation of Larson’s play, creating a modern musical that’s irresistible and moving.

Part adaptation and part biopic, tick, tick…Boom! is a beautiful tribute not just to Larson but also to the act of creative dreaming itself. Larson’s story is one that resonates for anyone who’s ever had the audacity to chase their goals and try to live their wildest dreams.

Andrew Garfield stars a Larson who, on the verge of his 30th birthday, is beginning to doubt whether or not he can make it as a writer. To make matters worse, his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), has recently gotten a job offer that will take her, and possibly him, away from the city and away from his dreams. Meanwhile, a workshop for his latest play, Superbia, which he’s been writing for eight years, is coming up and just might be the opportunity he’s looking for.

Larson originally conceived tick, tick…Boom! as a way to excise the feelings of disappointment he had over the reception to Superbia. Despite garnering interest from Broadway producers, no one stepped forward to make the play. It was an emotional exegesis, a work designed to remind himself what he was trying to do and why. It certainly worked, as it was in part the strength of his one-man show that led to the production of Rent and earned Larson his posthumous place in Broadway history.

Miranda manages to not only capture that spirit of creative desperation but also to expand the story into a full-blown musical. Unlike most musicals, which, by their nature, seem to lean into the fantastic and the bombastic, tick, tick…Boom! remains firmly grounded in reality. Even when breaking into full song and dance, we get the sensation that we’re looking into the mind of Larson and how he sees the world.

Larson’s was a world in which everything was music and no subject should be off-limits. That, really, is his lasting impact on the world of musical theater. He enabled us to view real life through the prism of the musical and vice versa. Miranda captures that well here and, as a result, we can see the influence Larson had on Miranda very well.

Garfield gives an amazing performance as Jonathan. At its core, this is a story about the existential anguish of turning 30, which the actor captures exquisitely. Even without much musical training, he brings life, hope, and anguish to Larson’s songs and translates them well for the cinematic audience. And while the songs might not be as memorable as the songs for Rent, they do allow us an insight into how Larson developed as an artist and offer us a glimpse at his evolution. In a lot of ways, the music feels a lot like the lesser-known debut of a band that broke out with their second or third album. Maybe it’s not quite there yet, but its fascinating to see the early stages of his development.

While we’re far removed from the experimental theater days of tick, tick…Boom!, the spirit is alive and well in Miranda’s directorial debut. One part adaptation and one part biopic, it’s an extraordinarily reverent and magical ode to Larson and the act of creating itself. It’s also a tragic reminder of the talent we lost with Larson’s sudden death 25 years ago. For those who know him only for Rent, the new film should serve to solidify his talents and, perhaps, remind us all that it’s okay to strive for a dream.

tick, tick…BOOM! is now available on Netflix.

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