Tick, Tick… BOOM! is a highly profound stimulus to all senses at the same time, emotional turmoil, but also an inundation of thoughts and countless open questions, whose common answer comes down to one thing – love! Tick, tick… BOOM! Confirms in all its glory the validity of the paradox of fiction; that is, it extorts a strong emotional response and complete bonding with a fictional story. Well, at least there is some logic to that because it’s a biographical musical, dedicated to the extremely rare bird Jonathan Larson (writer/composer), with an incredibly vibrant appearance, capable of making the most ordinary things exceptional. With a passion for creating art as if it is about a life or death situation, a moving explosion of sounds, emotions, ideas, desires, visions, perceptions…
But at the same time, this directorial debut of Lynn-Manuel Miranda marks a kind of farewell to Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford) – one of the most important figures in 20th-century musical theater, whose death (November 26, 2021), for those who believe in fate, miraculously coincides with the premiere of the film (world premiere at AFI Fest on November 10, 2021).
The script (Steven Levenson) and directorial solutions are brilliant because they pervade deep into Larson’s sensibility, and we simply have no choice but to immediately catch his rhythm and breathe through his lungs till the very end. And, believe me, it’s like getting on a bullet train, and it’s scary, tense, stressful, exciting, you wait seconds for it to stop, but at the same time, it is super exhilarating, and you do not want it to end. Yet, you know it will be over, the countdown starts with the opening of the film: This is Jonathan Larson’s story before the Pulitzer Prize…. we lost him (for those who know him, this information comes as no surprise, but for those who don’t, the announcement of his death at the beginning sounds like a spoiler). He died the night before his musical Rent began previews Off-Broadway. Still, that tick, tick, tick, ticking off the clock…, of which Larson is so hopelessly aware, the transience of life present in every scene throughout the film as a distinct character only increases the intensity. His life is a whirl in which one burns with yearning and an unstoppable need to create.
Miranda himself admits that there is no one more suitable than him for such a project. He is a singer, composer, playwright (best known for creating and starring in the Broadway musicals In the Heights and Hamilton) who identified and admired Larson during his development and also played him in a 2014 revival of Tick, Tick… BOOM! He received high praise for his performance, especially for his complete identification with Larson’s character, perhaps because they both share the same passion and unconstrained energy. Miranda incorporates exactly this unfinished one-man show by Jonathan Larson, which became a hit under the name Tick, Tick… BOOM! After his death, while simultaneously portraying Larson’s daily life. Elements are taken from various sources because, obviously, that richness of life cannot be illustrated linearly.
The main plot would be: on the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer in the1990s juggles his work at the Moondance Diner in SoHo with preparing for a workshop of his musical and passion project Superbia, which he has been working on for eight years, all the while he struggles to write a new song needed for the story. With both the workshop and his 30th birthday a week away, Jonathan feels it is his last chance to be successful.
Usually, there is a plot and a subplot in films, generally due to the viewer’s ability to keep the focus on mainly two parallel narrative lines. Here we have more subplots, but it doesn’t have a confusing effect on the viewer. On the contrary. All the subplots: the romance, the friendship, especially with Michael (the remarkable Robin de Jesus), the comment on the social circumstances and the conditions of one uncompromising artist are not in function of the protagonist, but of his need to create. At times he looks like he is selfish; he condemns that he has no sense for the needs of others or understanding of real life. But there’s so much he wants to tell the world and so little time to do it. Many artists can see themselves in his reflection for sure. That creative process never stops; it is just coexistent with all the other activities. This means that Larson is never alone with his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp); he does not swim alone, yet always accompanied by his music, notes, and creating process, so well visualized in the film. However, he is not moderate in his relations with others too. He loves endlessly, faithfully, and noble. Such are the lyrics of the songs throughout the musical, too – with a profoundly human touch.
Rare are such combinations in which every element is flawless. Andrew Garfield creates a spectacular performance of Larson. He makes Larson even more present in his absence, both physically and mentally. The line between the actor and the character is wholly erased; Garfield is Larson. His restless and bountiful nature, in constant motion, is juxtaposed with the continual immutability of the circumstances in which he lives. We can feel the intensity of his creating process, every day all day, his accumulated desires that long impatiently to be fulfilled, and his genius that screams from within, but still nobody can hear him. We can see the uncompromising way of life, with no price tag when it comes to moral peace, refusing a comfortable life with a good car, apartment, and clothes just to maintain his inner integrity. Garfield admits he was possessed by Larson’s ghost. He is so good that one really gets the impression that Larson just used his body as a vessel. There is no moment of hesitation; the articulation of every emotion is incredibly precise. And how he sings, that’s the real surprise! Real joy!
The film confirms Aristotle’s understanding of art from the beginning till the end: “As much as art is about action, it is also about the arousing of emotion, with the plot and the reactions of the characters… arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions”.
We are left to digest complex emotional states from this movie.
Tick, Tick… BOOM! is a real cathartic experience.