|Robin de Jesús|
|Director Lin-Manuel Miranda|
|Screenwriter Steven Levenson|
|Lin-Manuel Miranda on the set|
|Lin-Manuel Miranda with Andrew Garfield|
|Jonathan Larson with original producer Victoria Leacock|
TICK, TICK…BOOM! B+ USA (115 mi) 2021 ‘Scope d: Lin-Manuel Miranda
A film that pays homage to Stephen Sondheim, particularly the percussiveness of the lyrics, though Sondheim died just a few days after the Netflix premiere of the film, while really being an autobiographical musical about the life of struggling New York City composer, lyricist and playwright Jonathan Larson, a Sondheim wannabe who had an obsessional drive to succeed on Broadway, at the expense of friends and a personal life, where every living moment seemed to be about constructing a song he could use, even his most intimate moments, where the ticking sound in his head was an inspiration for new material, but also his sense that time was (prophetically) running out. Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Emmy, Grammy, and Tony-winning force behind Hamilton, adapting a screenplay by Steven Levenson, what’s immediately clear is that Jonathan Larson paved the way for Miranda, expanding the idea of what a musical could be, injecting a kind of youthful enthusiasm into an artform in desperate need of resuscitation, though this film reveals the pitfalls and hardships experienced along the way, set in the early 90’s when Jonathan (Andrew Garfield) is still working at the Moondance Diner in SoHo while preparing for a workshop of his original dystopian rock musical Superbia, an adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, the first musical written for the MTV generation, a passion project he has been working on for eight years that consumes every minute of each and every day, yet what really perplexes him is that within a few days he will be turning 30, a milestone in his life, where he has little to show for it, yet it’s a birthday that causes a kind of existential crisis, busting out into a song from behind the piano, with an accompanying band and singers, tick, tick… BOOM! | Andrew Garfield “30/90” Official Song Clip | Netflix YouTube (1:44), an extraordinary song that literally radiates with energy, with suggestions of greater things. In stark comparison, Jonathan Larson originally conceived the piece as an autobiographical one-man show, but can be seen with a small combo band behind him that stays in the shadows, treating the material differently, 30/90 - Jonathan Larson [tick boom] YouTube (5:01), but both versions feel driven by the pressure of time, filled with an overriding sense that this project is placing his life on hold, stuck in a Peter Pan stage of arrested development, sounding like something that may have been pulled from Sondheim’s Company, yet this is a theatrical presentation of a film about theatrical presentation. Immediately we get the sense this is about being in the theater, living the life, starving for acceptance, always wanting to be in the limelight, yet never getting a chance, instead living around the fringes of theater without ever actually getting an invite to perform. Borrowing from the best, his lyrics feel enunciated from the school of Stephen Sondheim, with Jonathan being such a huge Sondheim aficionado that he doesn’t even try to hide the resemblance, yet this puts him under enormous creative pressure, as he views himself as a boy genius with delusions of grandeur. He wants it all, and refuses to accept anything less. So immediately we’re on a trajectory of instant stardom and success, where there is literally no other possibility. The film is more about his career crisis than it is about him personally, though it does attempt to navigate his way between friends, like his former roommate Michael (Robin de Jesús), who now has a financially successful advertising career, and a personal relationship with a former dancer named Susan (Alexandra Shipp), where an ankle injury derailed her professional career, now offered a teaching position at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Center in the Berkshires, asking Jonathan to come join her there. This was in the early stages of an open expression of widespread diversity, with black, gay, and marginalized characters figuring prominently into the storyline, providing a new artistic canvas to work with, offering a more hopeful vision of societal change, though at the time it was stuck in bigotry and homophobia, led by comments from Senator Jessie Helms introducing AIDS amendments starting in 1987 that prohibited the use of federal funding for any HIV/AIDS educational materials, claiming AIDS was “God’s punishment to homosexuals,” also claiming, inaccurately, that “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.” Even when 18-year old Ryan White died of AIDS in 1990, the victim of a contaminated blood transfusion, the Helms hatred poisoned an increasingly hostile public perception. One should emphasize, however, that the white boy “genius” template is a recurring Hollywood format that has sadly not extended to minority characters, with the possible exception of Hidden Figures (2016) or Green Book (2018), though the white creative teams behind both those films delivered safe, conventional, and comfortably mainstream stories that were almost patronizingly earnest in their Disneyized depiction of sexism and racism.
While essentially a love letter to Jonathan Larson, Jonathan throws a raucous party where he cavalierly introduces himself as “the future of musical theatre,” though it’s all an excuse to make fun of themselves and their bohemian poverty, somehow dreaming of a better life, tick, tick… BOOM! | Andrew Garfield “Boho Days” Official Song Clip | Netflix YouTube (1:55), while in stark contrast, Michael lives a bourgeois life of comfort and ease on the Upper East Side, throwing all that bohemian shit out the window, suggesting Jonathan could write advertisement jingles to make money, or do market research to pull himself out of that rat hole, and in a punk anthem, celebrate the good life, with Jonathan feeling sucked in, but it all feels like a dream, tick, tick… BOOM! | “No More” Official Song Clip | Netflix YouTube (3:11). With Jonathan and Michael hanging out with Susan, they watch Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George on television, an apt choice and an iconic 1980’s musical, as it’s the Sondheim play most about what it means to be an artist. Reality kicks in when Ira (Jonathan Marc Sherman), head of Musical Theatre at Playwrights Horizons and the producer of his Superbia workshop, reminds him that one crucial scene in Act 2 is missing an essential song, and with the workshop coming up in just a few days, he should prioritize nothing else. In a flashback sequence, none other than Stephen Sondheim told him the same thing in an earlier workshop session. While the song may seem obvious, it continually eludes him as all the protective walls come tumbling down, as a maelstrom of problems nearly devour him with an incessant immediacy that clearly overwhelms him, knocking him off his perch, leaving him steamrolled by the pressing nature that life can throw at us with a volcanic force, as Susan needs to talk about her impending job offer, Michael offers a chance to earn money, Ira caves on his demands to provide a band, while perhaps most importantly Freddie (Ben Levi Ross), his friend and co-worker at the diner, ends up in the hospital with a low T-cell count, with gays in the city dropping like flies from the AIDS epidemic, as New York City was affected more by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s than anywhere else in America. Left frantic and anxiety-ridden, conflicted and unable to move, we hear him sing, “How can you soar when you are nailed to the floor?” Andrew Garfield - Johnny Can't Decide (feat Vanessa Hudgens & Joshua Henry) (Official Audio) YouTube (3:31). From the depths of devastation comes one of the best musical sequences in the film, certainly the most surprising, as it is an ode to musical theater, set in the diner itself for the mad rush of Sunday brunch, finding themselves short-staffed, unable to cope, yet the imagination runs wild, as suddenly cameo appearances are seen by Broadway legends, giving the film an amazing uplift of energy, the biggest and most beautiful dream version of theater utopia, tick, tick... BOOM! | "Sunday" Official Song Clip | Netflix YouTube (3:02), with the entire frame dissolving into a Georges Seurat pointillism picture, which simply offers the film stature and pizazz. Yet the next day is the day of his workshop, the initial run-through, with singers confused about their parts, many struggling to comprehend, and he still doesn’t have his song, but it goes off pretty well, as the musical inventiveness surges with an unbridled passion, which is the overriding sensation, feeling like there’s energy to burn, Superbia Workshop - Tick, Tick... BOOM! (2021) Movie Clip YouTube (1:53), where the percussiveness of each note shines through. Yet Susan can’t wait any longer, as she’s under her own timeline to make a decision, so she breaks up with him, realizing he’s already married more to the theater than he could ever be with her, tick, tick… BOOM! | “Therapy” Official Song Clip | Netflix YouTube (5:09). With pressure to come up with money to pay for his stage band, he succumbs to Michael’s suggestion to attend the advertising focus group, and while there are indications he could really pull this off, he intentionally sabotages the project, unwilling to make any kind of commitment, leading to one of the more heartfelt scenes with Michael, who reminds him what life is really like when you’re running out of time, as it’s the same problem for all gay men in New York, as half their friends are dying and the other half are scared to death they’ll be next.
Jonathan’s next dilemma is a presentation of his work in front of Broadway royalty at Playwrights Horizons, including Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), and everyone else on his agent’s A-list, Rosa Stevens (Judith Light), who apparently hasn’t been in touch with him during the past year, yet he still hasn’t got a song. With one last night before his final presentation, he nightmarishly twists and turns to tries to squeeze out something, yet he still comes up empty, deciding to take a late night swim, and suddenly it all rushes into his head in a surreal and somewhat delirious kaleidoscopic fantasy, jotting it down afterwards on a musical manuscript, handing it the next morning to Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens), who sweetly delivers the goods, tick, tick… BOOM! | “Come To Your Senses” Official Song Clip | Netflix YouTube (3:36), apparently written with Susan in mind, yet the next hour and a half are a blur, filled with a crescending exhilaration that may actually be the emotional climax of the film, injecting a feeling he can’t shake, as it’s the moment he’s always lived for, yet there are no offers afterwards. Instead he receives the news from his agent Rosa, who delivers the grownup speech no one ever wants to hear, but if you’re going to be a player in this business you have to have the fortitude to accept rejection, where the only recourse is to get back at it and write another one, hoping it will somehow catch on. Moving on is the only option, with suggestions that this is the real essence of show business. While utterly devastated, feeling empty and flattened afterwards, he returns to his position at the diner and life goes on, as if nothing happened. The question is, can he stay true to himself as an artist? While no one else quite reaches the same level as Garfield, playing his neuroses, fears, and anxieties with perfect calibration, while also allowing his joy and passion to thrive, yet the myriad of supporting characters are all excellent, including Joshua Henry as Roger, a friend and stalwart performer, all shining when they need to shine, truly elevating the material, yet this is clearly Garfield’s film. In something of a reflective mode, another standout scene occurs walking through Central Park, pondering his upcoming birthday and the mortality of his dying friends, feeling the ultimate crush of real life, with thoughts of his recently diagnosed HIV positive friend Michael running through his veins, it all leads to unanswered questions, tick, tick… BOOM! | Andrew Garfield Sings “Why” - Official Clip | Netflix YouTube (5:55). Making his first film, Miranda’s direction may surprise some, as he exhibits a visual flair with unexpectedly good editing, where his obvious affection for the material doesn’t intrude or seep into the story other than to add a certain tenderness. His genuine love for Larson is undeniable, with a Larson montage flooding the end credits, but the film is about more than one man, even a potential legend whose life was tragically cut short, as he died at the age of 35 from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm just before his first breakthrough occurred, the day of the first off-Broadway preview performance of Rent, which went on to become a huge hit for Broadway, running for twelve years, and 5,123 performances. Instead the film is a tribute to theater and the creation of art, finding Larson at an early period in his life when he struggled to find success, much like the Coen brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis (2012), caught out of time, often tortured by the creative process, as you’re often alone in a room with no one really listening to you, where you have to rely upon your best instincts, and even then you’re always a little bit unsure, as who can judge what the public will be interested in next? As a lover of theater, especially musicals, this is in a league by itself, as most stage productions don’t translate well to the screen, so it’s a jumbled mix of material, using a kind of fractured Bob Fosse All That Jazz (1979) template for an existential crisis taking place on the screen, simultaneously pushed and pulled, overwhelmed by the enveloping emptiness, yet Larson gets back in the saddle and writes another one that becomes the entitled musical, an autobiographical rock monologue that was reworked in 2001 into a stage version by playwright David Auburn, performed off-Broadway in theaters open to new interpretations of contemporary plays. It’s important to note that on Larson’s 30th birthday, he received a telephone message from Stephen Sondheim (whose actual voice message appears in the film) wishing him luck, expressing an interest in his work and urging him to continue. Celebrating with friends at the diner later that night, not really going anywhere, Susan drops by to wish him well, eventually narrating the cruel story of his death, where the tragedy is that Larson died before he saw his work achieve notoriety, yet that accounts for celebration in the making of this film, finally recognized and giving him his due, though belatedly, expanding to more of the Central Park sequence that finally brings down the curtain, tick, tick… BOOM! | “Louder Than Words” Official Song Clip | Netflix YouTube (4:26).