Black screen. Netflix‘s Tick, Tick… Boom! opens with an amateur video shot by a viewer. A viewer just like anyone. But the audience is not in a movie theater. In fact, they are inside a theater, and a young man in his early thirties with a clean-cut good-guy face steps onto the stage. With a wide smile, he grabs the microphone and exclaims: “Hi. I’m Jon. I’m a musical-theater writer. One of the last of my species. Sorry. So… so, you know, lately, I’ve been hearing this sound. Everywhere I go, like a tick, tick, tick… Like a time bomb…”. That’s how Jonathan Larson‘s story begins.
It is Jon himself (Andrew Garfield) – who is telling it. And Jon is telling his story both to the audience in front of him in the theater and to all of us. Pay attention. “Everything you’re about to see is true. Except for the parts Jonathan made up”, as Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner director Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) is keen to specify through the voice of Susan (Alexandra Shipp), Jon’s girlfriend.
Jon is not the only one who shows the urgency of wanting to build something big and meaningful. But so is Lin-Manuel Miranda who, with this movie, crafts a vibrant and moving homage to American composer, lyricist, and playwright Jonathan Larson. Yet Tick, Tick… Boom! is more than just a music biopic. It’s a story that successfully transcends generations and powerfully appeals not only to performers and artists but to all the dreamers. It’s a movie that resurrects and brings to light the importance of believing in one’s own story and one’s own voice telling it. Against the strict laws of production.
1990. New York City, between SoHo and Greenwich Village. Jon (Andrew Garfield) is a young theater composer. He has spent the last eight years of his life writing, rewriting, and rewriting again “Superbia”, his original dystopian rock musical. Unfortunately, his work always gets rejected by all sorts of producers. To make matters worse, Jon will be turning 30 very soon. And all he would like to do is “stop the clock”. Before it’s too late, Jon wants to leave his mark on the world by writing the next great American musical. In a New York City plagued by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Jon feels he’s running out of time. And while he turns everything into a song, from sugar to the breakup with his girlfriend, he fails to write a single note, not a single line of the one song he’s asked to write. But Jon will do anything to hang on to his dream.
Tick, Tick… Boom! won the AFI Award 2021 as one of the top 10 movies of the year. It also earned two nominations at the upcoming 79th Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Andrew Garfield.
Tick, Tick… Boom! is Miranda’s feature directorial debut. It’s an adaptation of Larson’s semi-autobiographical stage musical of the same name. Originally titled Boho Days and performed Off-Off-Broadway as a dramatic rock monologue that tells the story of a young composer trying to get his own musical “Superbia” produced on Broadway in 1990s New York City. It was only in 2001 that the musical premiered Off-Broadway in its definitive version revised by playwright David Auburn as a three-person musical. Fun fact: Miranda starred as Jon in a 2014 Encores! revival of the piece.
One of Miranda’s heroes, Jonathan Larson today is widely regarded as one of Broadway’s most celebrated personalities. His breakthrough hit came after his sudden death at age 35 with the rock musical Rent, which won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1996 and the Tony Award for Best Musical at the 50th Tony Awards. With its 5,123 performances, Rent is the 11th longest-running Broadway show.
Silence = Death
Almost entirely driven by Garfield’s performance – not surprisingly he won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play in 2018 for Angels in America – the movie is an ambitious and complex work of art. Garfield puts all of himself into it and succeeds in capturing that mix of torment, obsession, genius, insecurity, and passion that distinguishes Larson, and anyone else with a dream to fight for until the very last day. What emerges is a very theatrical cinematic effort that both celebrates the legacy Larson left behind and the creative process at large.
The explosion of music, dance, colors, and lights seem to acquire different values throughout the movie. They assume a dreamlike feature and, equally, they serve as a visual manifestation of Jon’s interiority and of what is taking place in the world around him. Each musical piece then also acquires a melancholic veil in its reflection of Jon’s inner (and outer) battle, the shaping of his dream that repeatedly clashes with the harshness of reality. While the musical segments give the viewer the feeling of being on a Broadway stage, they are skillfully counterbalanced by the real-life stage. There’s the American Dream on one side and an AIDS-ravaged New York City on the other. There’s Jon who feels he’s running out of time and there’s a virus that steals the time of the people around him forever.
In Tick, Tick… Boom! even the iconic Silence = Death political poster, which appears in the background on the city walls, seems to speak as loudly as Jon’s songs and seems to tell us something more beyond its original meaning: to seek one’s voice (and one’s music), to fight for the world to hear it, to believe in it and in its power to leave a mark.
“What does it take to wake up a generation?”
You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on, and that’s what it is to be a writer, honey. You just keep throwing them against the wall and hoping against hope that eventually, something sticks.Rosa Stevens (Judith Light), Tick, Tick… Boom!
Miranda successfully builds something much more than a mere tribute to Jonathan Larson. Tick, Tick… Boom! becomes a strong message of hope, encouragement, and inspiration for future generations of creative people. A powerful statement on the need to keep dreaming in a reality that seems to increasingly force one to keep one’s feet on the ground. Tick, Tick… Boom! shows more than just a piece of Larson’s story: it shows the creative struggle and the desire to have one’s artistic efforts recognized that are common to every artist and transcends each and every age. After all, musicals have almost always tried to decline this in different ways. Telling reality, sure, but not forgetting the importance of the dream.
In its appeal to a generation, albeit in a diametrically opposed way, the movie is similar to La La Land (2016). But also to Moulin Rouge! (2001) in its theatrical staging of musical fragments.
“Start sharpening those pencils”
In the end, back to the black screen, one wonders what more Larson could have given the world if he were still alive today. But one thing is for sure. He seems to speak to the viewers and reassure them in these words: “If you feel like no one will ever discover you. If you feel lost, like a loser with no purpose left and no inspiration, dive in and take a swim. You never know. Sometimes it’s in the deepest waters that you can find the answers.”