Much can be said about Jonathan Larson’s short-lived life. He’s best known for the musical Rent, which success he tragically failed to see after a sudden death. A gifted playwright, Larson spent his 35 years of life dedicated to writing and composing musicals about grief, love, and a bucket load of questions: Fear or love? How do you measure a year in a life? Am I cut out to spend my time this way?
In Tick, Tick… Boom!, Lin-Manuel Miranda adapts Larson’s biographical musical about his 20’s and his anxieties about turning 30. It’s an impressive feat: it feels like an actual live show that I would have loved to experience in the theatre.
Andrew Garfield’s versatility is at its peak when he’s stretched to the limits. Here, he combines frantic energy and physicality with Jonathan’s mild mannerisms. A musical like this would have suffered a standstill if not for his magnetic presence. If there’s one thing we can expect from Garfield, it’s that he always makes it worth your time to see him perform.
Against him, Robin De Jesus stands on his own as Michael, Jonathan’s gay friend who moves out into the harshness of the corporate world. He brings a sense of vulnerability and stability against Larson’s narcissistic chaos; Michael pulls down the curtains and grounds him. Alexandra Shipp’s charming presence as Larson’s onscreen partner Susan also aids in doing so. She’s patient, smiling through her frustrations over her lover’s walls. It’s a pity the Green, Green Dress number hadn’t made it towards the final cut as the one in the soundtrack would have given us insight into the eventual miscommunication between the couple, with Susan’s futile effort to communicate with Jonathan through dancing. Susan freely expressing herself apart from Jonathan would have also given her more time to ground herself in this narrative.
Miranda’s debut film is rough around the edges, with its occasional odd framing. In the Come to Your Senses number, the scene splits between Susan and Karessa’s character in Superbia. It’s confusing: Is it the revelation of the character in Superbia? Or is it Susan leaving that’s finally broken through Jonathan? Miranda blurs this line so we’re left thinking if Jonathan had indeed had a breakthrough in the relationship or he just used it as a guide to push his work forward.
Though, such flaws I can forgive; the heart still comes through. Occasionally, the film centers more on worshipping Larson’s dedication to his career and passion in seeing through Superbia, rather than the frustrations of being a creative itself. Had Miranda chosen the path of Larson’s creative frustration instead of hero-worshipping, it would have been more universal rather than insufferable.
Everyone has the capacity to create beautiful things, but the path towards it is paved with crooked turns that can be hard to navigate. Larson’s persistence to see it through is inspiring. But I felt that Jonathan’s relationships with his friends hadn’t been utilized well enough to flesh him out more. Larson is insufferable, frustrating, and a jerk to his loved ones. It begs the question of how long can you suffer for the sake of art; how long can you compromise your economic standing and relationships?
Larson had an advantage: he was straight and white. He was also molded into the creative that he is at such a young age and with enough support from his family. That’s a privilege. Michael, who is Latino and gay, as well as Susan, a Black woman, don’t share the same privilege as Jonathan. Their economic condition doesn’t give them enough time and opportunity to dedicate themselves to art. There’s a sort of bitterness reflecting about it. As a fellow working-class creative, the dream to dedicate oneself to art remains a hopeful one, but it’s not sustainable. The film had enough time to actually explore that area, especially through Michael and Susan, but these characters were framed antagonistically. Their desire to let go and settle down into stable jobs and lives felt like a ploy to ruin that dream of making it.
We lose so many artists to capitalism, which is a tragedy in itself. Eventually, you lose them entirely to capitalism, in heartbreaking ways.
It’s only when Michael confronts Jonathan with the realities of his health condition does the cavern in Jonathan’s head break. The strongest point of this film isn’t about Larson’s ‘musical genius’ or his failures as a playwright; through reflecting on his relationship with Michael, the film allows us to step outside of that creative bubble and focus on the heart of existing. What is it all for? Who are we making these things for? It’s not just about recognition. The third act of Tick, Tick… Boom! barely touches that aspect of creating for whom and focuses on the need to be recognized for your creation. We just know that Larson has the capability to tell good stories and he knows it too. It’s a tragedy that the recognition he sought only came after he passed.
Regardless, Tick, Tick… Boom! addresses that burdening urgency in your 20’s; the need to produce and give it your all before 30 often at the expense of everything else. Despite it all, it is an inspiring film for artists and dreamers, an ode to life’s constant and urgent creative instinct that keeps goading us to pursue the heart of it all. There’s always the hope of being recognized for the space we occupy. The mere fact of existing enough to whistle or sing your own song has magnitude.
Tick, Tick… Boom! answers its own question. The answer to life’s question is simply experiencing it. All of it, enough to be here. To know that being here alongside people you love and will love is the very song we keep singing again. To make the most of that little time and stretch it until it’s full of your heart so it will never be lost.
In order to create, we must partake with life and the people in it. Only then can we continuously produce the very great work that we speak.