In early November, the film adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical, one-man rock musical, “tick, tick . . . BOOM” was released on Netflix. After seeing all the buzz it accumulated via social media (and the multiple “It’s so good!” comments from friends), I jumped on the bandwagon and watched it.
Directed by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, “tick, tick…BOOM!” follows a young, 29-year old Jonathan Larson, a playwright and composer preparing for two very pivotal moments in his life: his 30th birthday and placing the cherry on top of his sci-fi musical “Superbia.” Larson is played by Tony-Award-winning actor Andrew Garfield who is best known for his title role in “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel in addition to playing Prior Walter in “Angels in America” to name a few.
The Oscar-nominated film (including one for Garfield as Best Actor) opens with grainy home video footage of 29-year old Jonathan Larson (Garfield) in his element, goofing off at the Moondance Diner where he waited and bussed tables. The footage then transitions to snapshots of “Rent,” Larson’s most well-known musical. As those flashbacks fade, we are placed in an auditorium, where the composer takes the stage to unfold everything that happened up until his special day.
“Tick, tick…BOOM!” does a wonderful job putting the viewer in Jonathan’s shoes, as he opens the night with “30/90,” a song about Larson’s anxiety around turning 30 years old.
Despite this being a musical, the film adaptation isn’t just straight-up singing. You get to see Larson engage with different characters such as Michael (Robin de Jesús), his childhood best friend, who is trying to make his way up the corporate ladder as a gay male of color, or Susan (Alexandra Shipp), Jonathan’s girlfriend and confidant, who is an aspiring dancer. That is what makes “tick, tick…BOOM!” well, boom! Garfield does an impeccable job at clenching the heartstrings of his viewers. The audience gets a chance to dive into the small knicks and knacks of Larson’s head, really seeing his thought process.
“Tick, tick…BOOM!” is set in the heart of New York during the AIDS crisis. Beginning in 1981, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was heavily targeting queer individuals, specifically young gay men. In the film, many characters are affected emotionally by this surge. Its acknowledgment of the time period was very intentional and well thought out. This is shown by exhibiting different types of activist propaganda, like “Silence = Death” posters for example.
The term “Silence = Death” was huge during the 1980s and 90s and coined by activists Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Socarrás. The symbol, a pink triangle, was inverted to identify gay people in German concentration camps during the 1930s and 40s. Since then, the symbol has been reclaimed and flipped to express pride. The six activists who launched the movement proclaimed that “silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.” Active protests such as “die-ins” (activists playing dead in public places as a way to make the protests more dramatic and disturbing) were used in order to get bystanders’ attention on such a pivotal issue at the time. “Tick, tick…BOOM!” does a wonderful job representing the period, leaving its audience in awe.
We travel with Larson as he experiences multiple obstacles while attempting to make his mark on musical theater. He observes the many social issues going on during that era, using what he knows to craft a piece of art representative of his time. The setbacks he faces in this process raise a question of why systems are set up the way they are. “Tick, tick, BOOM!” acknowledges “isms” and “ias” through the eyes of Larson in a form that is both raw and playful, showing viewers that the journey is more important than the destination. That, in itself, is heartwarming.
This film is not only a love letter to Jonathan Larson, but one to creative individuals everywhere to go forth and take charge of their passions. No matter what setbacks you face or how many battles you fight, you will accomplish something beautiful. “Tick, tick, BOOM!” is touching and definitely worth the watch.
“Tick, Tick . . . BOOM” is now streaming on Netflix. You can catch the Oscars on March 27 on ABC.