A great performance is like an explosive device. You can see the wick burning down, insisting on your doom. You hear the constant sizzle as the wick’s white hot flame moves slowly to its destination. A bomb is about to go off. And you’re not looking forward to anything with quite more relish than that.
tick, tick…BOOM! follows the story of Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield), but the cinematic musical isn’t concerned with the meteoric success of Larson’s Broadway behemoth RENT. In fact, the film is more concerned with failure, as Larson struggles to write the final song to his self-described magnum opus, Superbia, as well as maintain the relationships with his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and ex-roomate and childhood best friend, Michael (Robin De Jesus). And, worst of all, he turns 30 in just over a week.
To the film’s credit, audiences with a previous knowledge of musical theater understand in the opening moments of the film that Larson’s Superbia will never be a fully realized project. What we don’t understand are the lengths that Larson went to in order to produce it, and it’s in a number of the film’s moments that we see that tick, tick…BOOM! isn’t only about the momentary failure that predated his life’s legacy – it’s a film about ambition, about relationships, about the heartache that we all find ourselves producing over the course of a lifetime. That’s the beauty of tick, tick…BOOM!, and it’s absolutely incendiary.
As the film opens, “30/90” serves as the perfect introduction, not only to the film’s energy itself but also to the existential crisis that the characters and perhaps even the moviegoing audience will experience at some point or another in life. Specifically, Larson is facing two very distinct challenges at this moment: the first, the creative inability to finish his long-gestating musical – the second, he’s about to turn 30. Older than Sondheim when West Side Story opened on Broadway. Older than Paul McCartney was when he wrote “Let It Be.” If Larson misses this self-imposed deadline, it’s a sign of failure. For Garfield, it’s also a great introduction to the actor’s untapped and previously unknown ability to sing. (As the story goes, Garfield’s friend lied to Miranda, indicating that he could sing. He couldn’t. Hours of coaching became necessary.) The number masterfully exhibits the frantic and comedic nature of growing old too fast before accomplishing the goals you set out to reach.
“Therapy” is the number with the most going on, both structurally and dramatically. Within the context of the plot, real world Jon and Susan’s crumbling relationship is cleverly intertwined with the relationship difficulties of theatrical characters Jon and Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens), and the difficulties are messy to write the least. Very complicated. So is the number. Staged like a conversation between two lovers who simply can’t find the pacing they need in order to understand one another, the song’s pacing becomes more and more frenetic as their relationship simultaneously seems to spiral out of control. What begins the lyrics “I feel bad that you feel bad / About me feeling bad about you feeling bad / About what I said about what you said / About me not being able to share a feeling” uncomfortably and too quickly turn to dissolution instead of resolution as the lovers sing, “Now it’s four am / And we have therapy tomorrow / It’s too late to screw / So let’s just get some rest.”
And yet the film isn’t all high energy and electric pacing. “Come To Your Senses” is the final song of Larson’s musical Superbia that he has struggled with writing over the course of the entire movie. The second act ballad that aims to leave the audience without a dry eye. But instead of making audiences cry, it leaves Jon misty-eyed. Instead of the dramatic moment sung by Karessa within the scene, the performance becomes Susan’s parting words to Jon, who has finally passed that point of no return, finally alienated her long enough in his pursuit of creation and fame. Shipp and Hudgens’ voices mix perfectly as the stories of Jon’s professional and personal life collide at one exact moment. In a way, “Come To Your Senses” is Jon’s musical apology to Susan, and a message that he hopes is reflected in her heart as well.
As the film comes to a quiet conclusion, it’s “Louder Than Words” that provides the finale, a lyrical combination of all the small notepad jottings he made throughout his experiences writing his musical and a sonic display of Jon’s maturity, as the day he dreaded so much at the beginning of his story finally arrives. He’s thirty, but much to 29-and-change year old Jon’s surprise, he’s not intimidated by his inevitable aging. The film ends as it began, with Jon and his tick, tick…BOOM! co-stars on stage, but this time, it seems Jon is years more mature than he was at the beginning of the performance. “Louder Than Words” is an emotional conclusion that poses more questions than answers, but that’s all right with Jon.
The brightest highlight of the film is the acting, mostly from Garfield, Shipp and De Jesus. Each of the three main actors not only skillfully portray their characters, but they all pay respect to the real people the film’s story is based on.
Garfield’s titular Jonathan Larson absolutely steals the show in every scene he’s in. Garfield takes so much care in his portrayal of Larson, nailing every small detail that can be seen about the real Jon (home footage of Jon is interjected throughout the movie). He is versatile in showing the conflicting emotions Jon feels throughout the duration of the film, floating with elation in his highs and sinking deeper and deeper within himself during his lows. Even the smallest of microexpressions are so visible on Garfield’s face as he acts, especially during scenes where his relationships with Susan and Michael are falling apart. Garfield’s acting expertise also shines through during musical numbers, where some other actors could get lost in just trying to sing, Garfield is able to convey every thought and emotion through words written over 30 years ago. Of course, playing a man who made such a large impact on the history of theater is a demanding task, but Garfield does it with such ease and comfortability, it’s no wonder he’s up for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars.
Shipp’s Susan Wilson is Larson’s longtime girlfriend. She, too, left the arts after a career-ending ankle injury. Her earnest assertiveness mirrors Jon’s messy nature, which makes them the perfectly complex on-screen couple. Shipp plays Susan not as someone who dishes out ultimatums, but honestly tries to support the one she loves. It is after the couple’s fall out that her absence in the film leaves the third act void of someone who understands Jon emotionally but is willing to put herself first. Shipp’s best moment in the film is actually her final scene, though. It’s a quietly emotional scene between her and Jon that shows Shipp’s comprehension of the real world Jon and Susan.
tick, tick…BOOM! is the directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda. His style exhibits a deep sense of understanding of Jon Larson’s conflict between the career he loves and has worked nearly a decade for, and the comfortable life his friends are leaving him for. tick, tick…BOOM! is unapologetically theatrical. That would be the only criticism of the film coming to mind, its moments of cliché or cheesy-ness, like in certain musical numbers or some scenes where Jon’s inner monologue is on display, but the style of directing is mostly endearing to the story that is being told. Miranda is able to convey the complexity and grandiose of stage shows onto the screen that is impressive for being his first movie.
tick, tick…BOOM! is a love letter to the theater. It is theatrical, it’s over the top, but it’s raw and relatable. It shows the reality of Jonathan Larson’s struggle to realize his great potential as a creator and the consequences creativity can have on the ones you love. Every detail, from the cinematography, to the directing, to the smallest details in the songs and on the set comes together to create an enduring visual, musical, and very emotional experience.
tick, tick…BOOM! is a celebration of a man who, despite his flaws and setbacks, did not give up on his dreams, even if he never saw them fully realized. Michael said it best: There’s only one Jonathan Larson.
Kelsey Gara is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl