Tick, Tick...Boom! movie review: Andrew Garfield's Netflix musical is an electric ode to the creative process
TickTickBoom! on Netflix is stunning to watch because of how specific it is in its focus around the anxiety of an artist battling only two modes (or perhaps moods?): procrastination and burnout
castAndrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin De Jesus
Jonathan Larson is missing a song. The year is 1990 and 29-year-old Larson, admittedly one of the handful (of a dying breed of) musical theatre artists in New York city, has been working on his musical Superbia for eight years. He’s missing a song in his second act. He needs to write it for a presentation that big-shot Broadway/off-Broadway producers will hear in six days' time.
The problem is, Larson, who works at a diner to pay for his monthly sustenance, is quite overwhelmed. So, he sits around all day staring at his Macintosh computer, the blinking cursor serving as the only reminder of the passing seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years. The stakes couldn’t be higher, with the possibility of the presentation fetching him his first paycheck from musical theatre. After this, he won’t be just another broke artist in NYC, marinating in his ideals. His ‘passion’ will also be his profession. He is about to be ‘discovered’. Fame, money and reverence of his peers will soon start courting him. It all depends on this one song.
Hence, nothing seems good enough. He writes a word, a sentence, and then deletes it. For someone who comes up with spontaneous songs as an exercise, he can’t seem to find a worthy lyric/tune for the most important bridge in his play. Even more scary is the fact that Larson will turn 30 on the day after his presentation. A milestone, perhaps? And what does he have to show for it? All the writers, musicians he grew up admiring, had accomplished so much more by then. He still has to figure out the song.
As he tries to align his faculties towards this one objective, he finds himself distracted all the time. Even apart from the missing song, there are a million things to do. There are overdue bills sitting on his kitchen table, Larson’s partner (Susan) is waiting for the ‘right time’ to talk to him about a job in a different part of town, there’s a friend who could use his advice on something ‘important’. He needs to reach out to his agent who hasn’t returned his calls for a year. He needs to figure out the logistics for bringing his vision to life in the best way possible in front of potential bidders, even if that means affording extra musicians by selling books and records.
Larson is breathlessly rushing down a runway, which could prove to be appallingly short. His parents are still looking at him expectantly to ‘come to his senses’ and settle down perhaps, friends are wondering how long will he weather the famine before he turns over to the ‘dark side’. This is also the decade when the AIDS epidemic gripped America, thereby making Larson an accidental witness to many unexpected deaths, especially in his friends circle. Time seems to be in short supply, the fuse has been lit, and the TNT dynamite is about to explode.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film, which is an adaptation of Larson’s off-Broadway musical of the same name, is stunning to watch because of how specific it is in its focus around the anxiety of an artist battling only two modes (or perhaps moods?): procrastination and burnout.
Larson’s sophomore musical draws from his days spent realising his first project, ultimately leaving him with countless epiphanies like “Fear or Love?” or “When the boss is wrong as rain”. It all becomes a part of the final song 'Louder than words'.
Miranda, who reinvented the Broadway musical with Hamilton (much like Larson’s 1996 rock musical, Rent), is on familiar ground here. He played the role of Larson in a 2014 off-Broadway revival of Tick, Tick… Boom! Here, he isn’t merely adapting Larson’s story into a vanilla film, but also extrapolating a man’s journey into a lesson for artists defeated by everyday pragmatism.
Much like Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, even Larson’s musical touched upon the need to preserve the integrity of one’s artistic voice and not ‘sell out’. It speaks about compromises in hushed tones, almost seeming conservative (or uptight) in its worldview. Andrew Garfield’s ‘Jon’ Larson is haunted by a ticking clock, just like how Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian was disillusioned by the reception of ‘pure’ Jazz for which the audience didn’t share his enthusiasm.
Miranda’s film investigates this superiority complex of the artists and the premise of creating art which is ‘ahead of their time’. Like Chazelle’s Oscar-winning musical, even Tick, Tick… Boom! charts the coming-of-age of Jonathan Larson, and the lessons he learns while bringing Superbia to life.
Despite being largely faithful to Larson’s musical, Miranda’s film adaptation adds nice touches to its source material like the impromptu song ‘Boho days’ (which was removed from the subsequent revivals) taking place at an artists’ gathering. Andrew Garfield plays Larson with an exuberance where he’s living at the speed of sound, some might argue he’s even living ‘too much’ with each passing second. He’s breathless in nearly all his scenes, as if he always has somewhere else to be. And despite that, Garfield lends humanity to Larson’s character despite doing some pretty shameful things under the garb of ‘being an artist’. This inability to switch off, and become borderline obsessive... is captured splendidly by Miranda.
Miranda’s visual flair comes to the fore in 'Sunday', where Garfield’s Larson breaks into a song to vent his frustration about entitled patrons of Sunday brunch at his diner. There’s another song where Larson gets a taste of the good life through his best friend and former roommate, Michael (Robin De Jesus) who moved on from his acting ambitions to the supersonic life of an advertising executive. There’s a superb sequence drawing the parallels between their meagre existence as dreamers and the opulent lifestyle of a ‘sensible’ robot, replete with a door-man in the lobby of his new residence.
Tick, Tick… Boom! could have been just another musical, but it almost seems prophetic for our times, where so many of us are overwhelmed by the information that is accessible all around us. So many books to read, so many films to watch, how does one accomplish enough? Is there such a concept, especially with people flaunting their accomplishments via social media. It’s also about Larson coming to the realisation: the most personal is the most creative. Which is what motivates him to write about his bohemian life through the 80s and 90s in NYC, which is the premise here as well as his game-changing musical, Rent.
Tick, Tick… Boom! Is ultimately a tragedy, considering how Larson passed away on the night before the premiere of what would become his most famous piece of work (Rent). Miranda’s film seems to be asking pertinent questions about whether it’s important to stop once in a while, and smell the flowers? Larson doesn’t seem like the type, which is why his life story gets a whole new meaning with Garfield’s cheerful face plastered on it. That’s the power of art, isn’t it? One person’s celebration of life could become another one’s cautionary tale. And one could always rewrite that last scene regardless of how it actually ended. Over here we end with Garfield closing his eyes in front of his 30th birthday cake to ‘make a wish’.
Rating: * * * * *
Watch the trailer here
Tatsam Mukherjee has been working as a film journalist since 2016. He is based out of Delhi NCR.
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