tick, tick… BOOM! is a triumph

By Clélia Gessner

On November 19th, 2021 Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical rock monologue tick, tick… BOOM! was made available to watch on Netflix. More than an adaptation really, as it alternates reconstitutions of the actual performance of the show on stage with live action re-enactment of the scenes that are described in it. 

In case you are not familiar with Mr Larson’s name, he is the genius behind the masterpiece that is  the musical Rent. Now, I know tick, tick… BOOM! is a show that means a lot to many theatre kids around the world independently from Rent, but I personally did not grow up as a theatre kid and only got into theatre much later in life, so I have actually never seen the show in any form before, except for bits of footage from the original Larson performance, mostly in documentaries about his life and Rent. So this will not be a comparison of the film with the stage show; frankly I do not think it is made to be compared with the show but rather to be seen as a tribute to Jonathan Larson, his work, and both tick, tick… BOOM! and Superbia as shows specifically.

Although tick, tick… BOOM! is not a show that meant a lot to me before seeing the film, Rent definitely is. It is one of the very first musicals I started listening to when I did get into theatre. That was primarily because of the film adaptation of Rent, which made the show accessible to me in my French hometown, far away from cities such as London or New York where musical theatre is actually a thing—which is definitely an argument for more movie musicals, but that is not the point here. It is such an incredible, groundbreaking piece of theatre; I think most of you readers will agree with me on this. Back in those early days when I essentially discovered the entire culture and history of musical theatre in one summer, I watched everything I could find online and stumbled upon the two-hour-long documentary No Day But Today, which was released on the DVD of the film version of Rent in 2006. This is how I came to know the story of Jonathan Larson, his work, his lifestyle, and of course his tragic death on the very day of the first Off-Broadway performance of Rent. It immediately touched me—as it would, I think, anyone.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is famously a huge fan of Larson’s work too. He has expressed his love for Rent, for tick, tick… BOOM! and for Larson as an artist many times, having also played ‘Jon’ in a production of tick, tick… BOOM! with Leslie Odom Jr and Karen Olivo back in 2014. Therefore, there were great expectations for the film but I think we all knew it was in good hands with someone as passionate about it as Miranda.

In my humble opinion, he definitely succeeded. The film is incredibly good, a theatre lover’s dream, really. In the past year, we have been lucky to have several big movie musicals released: The Prom, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, In The Heights, Dear Evan Hansen… and as much as I loved some of them, I have to say tick, tick… BOOM! definitely takes the cake for me. Let’s get into why I loved it so much.

Something that must have been quite tricky to manage is the balance between the stage scenes and the re-enactments. I think this was done perfectly well, there was no awkwardness in the switch from one setting to the other, they were separate but blended very cleverly. I would however love to know what people who are very familiar with the stage show would say about this. I do believe some songs were shortened or cut, but as someone who has never seen it, as I expect will be the case for many people who see this movie, it just works really well the way it is.

As mentioned before, tick, tick… BOOM! is a (more or less) autobiographical rock monologue. It was written by Jonathan Larson in 1990 and takes place in the same year, as ‘Jon’ is preparing for a workshop of the futuristic rock musical he has been writing for the past eight years, Superbia, at the same time as he is about to turn 30 and getting increasingly anxious that he has not had any show produced yet. Jon is a struggling composer who has kept getting rejection letter after rejection letter, his own agent has not returned his calls for months and he is barely scraping by with his job as a waiter at the Moondance diner. The story is a testament to the difficulties of being an artist who lives for their art, of getting your work produced in a world where all that matters is money, of having to face the fact that dreams do not always come true. Jon is passionate about his work (as a musical theatre composer, not as a waiter) and desperately wants Superbia to be great and to touch people but he is faced with the fact that his show is simply not bankable in the eyes of investors. However, in spite of all odds, he clings to his artistic vision and passion. He is missing one crucial song in the second act of his musical and the main plot of the film is him struggling to write it, days, hours before the workshop where the show will be presented to potential investors, all while having to deal with money, relationship and friendship problems.

The story is central to the piece, therefore the storytelling is a really important aspect in the film. In my opinion, Miranda did this very well. I was hooked from the first few seconds. Maybe that was because I knew most of the story already from all those documentaries about Larson I have watched, but I really think anyone will be just as hooked as I was. In that aspect, the cast’s performances were pivotal, especially Andrew Garfield’s performance as Jon, but also Robin de Jesús as Michael and Alexandra Shipp as Susan, supported by an incredible ensemble of mostly Broadway performers. They were all incredibly touching and delivered some incredible acting performances, as well as stunning vocal performances.

While we’re talking about the actors, I must say this cast is a real treat for theatre kids of all ages. The supporting cast includes MJ Rodriguez, Joshua Henry, Vanessa Hudgens, Laura Benanti and dozens of cameos from big Broadway names, including some of the most well-known theatre composers of our time. But I will let you watch and try to spot all of them yourself! I admit it definitely took me out of the story at times, mainly during the diner song, ‘Sunday’, which is just packed with cameos, because I admit I was live-tweeting my watching experience and had to pause every few seconds to type names in caps with many exclamation points every time there was a new cameo… But that’s just me. And the best thing is, I know I can rewatch the film whenever I want and not have to be distracted by the cameos but rather fully enjoy them and all the Easter eggs and nods to Rent and theatre that theatre kids will appreciate.

The last important point for me is the score and the way it is woven into the film. Obviously, the music is Larson’s but Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman and Kurt Crowley did an amazing job with the orchestrations and the songs were really well integrated in the film, which is very important because when they are not, you notice it and it can totally ruin your experience!

All in all, I think tick, tick… BOOM! is an outstanding movie and outstanding movie musical. The  original story and music are only sublimated in this film, which is the ultimate tribute to Jonathan Larson’s life and work. It really reminded me of how much we owe to him, how much he changed the face of theatre and how much his work means to me. With international star Andrew Garfield leading, it can only make many more people aware of Larson’s story and give a further life to his lesser-known work, finally giving Superbia the recognition that Larson lacked so much at the time. Jonathan Larson never got to see the impact that Rent ended up having, but at least we continue to honour his memory and this film will hopefully inspire others like him to keep creating, thus paving the way for more great works of art.

I will leave you with this sentence famously spoken on the day of Larson’s death at the end of the premiere of Rent:

Thank you, Jonathan Larson.

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