Tick Tick…Boom! Life Behind the Art | A Review

Tick, Tick… BOOM! is a film based on the semi-autobiographical play by Jonathon Larson (known for creating the hit musical Rent) and is directed by Lin Manuel Maranda (creator of Hamilton).

Jonathon Larson was an all around genius – a lyricist, composer and playwright – who explored themes such as addiction, homophobia and many other social issues. Miranda, in his directorial debut, aimed to highlight the life behind these stellar plays while paying homage to the struggle of being an artist in New York.

I must admit I knew very little of Jonathon Larson before watching this film. I have of course heard of Rent but I have never watched it. So, in that case, the film was as much of a learning experience as it was an entertaining one. Larson’s story is a tragic one to say the least, he worked for seven years to get Rent to the stage, to die the night before the preview’s were going to open. In many ways Larson is like a lot of other legends in the industry, what he worked so hard for was only realised as great once he was gone. The film is even more poignant with the passing of Stephen Sondheim (Legendary lyricist and composer) this year who was a champion of Larson from the beginning. Although he did not take on Larson’s first play, Superbia, according to What’s on Stage Larson was under Sondheim’s stewardship. Their close relationship and respect for each other is highly prevalent in the film and therefore it becomes a testament to the both of them.

Featuring an amazing performance by Andrew Garfield as Jonathon Larson and the spectacular cast of Vanessa Hudgens, Alexandra Shipp, Jordan Fisher and Robin de Jesus to name a few, allows the story to be lifted to new heights.

Garfield learned to sing for the film and, as many have pointed out, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing this role. His unkept appearance and endearing persona only adds to the perception of chaos in Larson’s life.

Official Trailer

Tick, Tick… Boom! (first called Boho days) was a play first, and was performed off broadway in 1990 in a workshop by Larson. Then the name changed after its development, to Tick, Tick… Boom! Larson’s show was seen as a “Rock Monologue”, a new form of musical that was gaining momentum in New York which caught the attention of Jeffrey Seller who went on to get Rent to Broadway.

Although Larson’s career can be summarised in a few sentences it does not accurately describe the heartache that went in to getting the show produced. As seen in the film, Larson worked tirelessly at the Moondance diner while composing and writing musicals at the detriment to his relationships. Furthermore, the AIDS epidemic was affecting his closest friends and the general theatre community while most of them lived in poverty and inadequate living situations. New York was no easy feat for struggling artists but Larson’s will to push forward is at the helm of his character, a factor which Miranda expertly highlights in his film.

The relationship between musicals and films is one we’ve seen many a time and through these adaptations we have also seen many failed attempts. Miranda discusses this type of adaptation (see attached interview) stating that the biggest challenge is dealing with the ‘suspension of belief’. The ‘threshold’ you have to deal with as a film maker is a lot higher in a film than with a musical because you have to build a place where it is believable for people to break out into song. As Miranda states in this interview, there is many a way he could have done this but by setting this standard through the opening number he stays true to Jonathon Larson and his rock monologue.

Lin Manuel Miranda describing his experience directing his first film.

I must admit that I have a love hate relationship with musicals that get turned into films. Do I love them as seperate things, yes! Have they continually been done wrong? YES! Usually it involves a lot of eye rolling and shouting at the TV. However, I am glad to say that Tick, Tick… Boom! was different. The precise way in which the songs were placed into these scenes was much appreciated and they only added to the film rather than being there to replace speech or a moment of change.

Furthermore, the thought process of having a concentric circle which is detailed in the above interview, which slowly expands, reveals the process behind building a relationship between the musical numbers and the audience. Something which you think is done naturally is in fact a well rehearsed and thought out device. I highly recommend checking out the above interview if you want to find out more about Miranda’s directoral debut.

Clip of Boho Days from the film.

The film itself was reminiscent of Miranda’s production of In the Heights, which he does acknowledge as a source of inspiration. The film, like In the Heights, was enjoyable because of the deep connection with the people present in the story. The use of song only accentuated this. Especially the placement of music, it did not feel like it was squeezed in or made a big deal of. It was natural and most importantly, it made sense. One of my favourite songs from the film was ‘Boho Days’; a song made for the soul of New York and the life they live because they love what they do, not because of what that looks like (poverty, hardship, competition etc.) because it is far from perfect.

Of course I do not want to give too much of the film away however I would like to appreciate one scene that stood out to me, the scene dedicated to his friend Michael and his HIV diagnosis (around 1:30:00). The overlapping of song, the monologue and the ticking onto scenes such as Larson running and Robin de Jesus’ character having to cope with the horrendous news of his diagnosis, builds an incredible amount of tension and sorrow. This is where the relationship between the character and the viewer comes into play, you are not solely watching it, you are feeling it. There is a deep sense of connection to these two stories. It is one of the most poignant moments because Larson realises that he will still do it all but it cannot be at the detriment to his friends because they also need him. It is not a one way road, they need him as much as he needs them.

Larson’s 30th birthday is like a ticking time bomb throughout the film, it is Larson’s deadline to feel like he has achieved something. I guess that relates to most people in their twenties, it is largely seen as the time to ‘figure things out’ but by the time you reach the big 3 0 you should be pretty settled. Is that realistic, probably not. Does it put a large amount of existential grief on to one person, yes! The addition of working in the arts and sticking to your guns only accentuates this issue. Which is why it is truly heartbreaking when the audience is reminded at the end that Larson did not get to see the hard work and grief pay off.

Miranda’s film is a work of art. Yes, the start may not be so engaging and it does take a while to get into it. But once you understand the mission and story behind it, does that matter? Well I don’t think so. For once we do not see a film whereby the artist succeeds on first try and makes a million dollars in the box office. In fact, in this film we really only see struggle, frustration and loss. It humanises the experience of success and reminds everyone that behind every great artist there is a story.

What did you think of the film? Were you impressed or are you on the fence? Let me know below!

Tick, Tick… Boom! is now available on Netflix.

Sending lots of love,

Sophie x


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