The movie musical is well and truly back thanks to financial and critical successes like The Greatest Showman, La La Land, and Mamma Mia!, with studios consistently taking the plunge on what can be expensive productions. Most of these are showing off that investment with big, endearing films, but a few are keying in on the more personal, melancholic emotions that can be drawn out by a character breaking into song.
One of the latter is Tick, Tick… Boom!, which originated as a one-man show by Jonathan Larson long before he hit it big with Rent. It’s since been revised and expanded multiple times, and now, on the big screen, it’s morphed into an ode to a man who loved and believed in musical theater but never saw his faith rewarded. Yes, Rent is one of the biggest musicals of all time and was considered a revolutionary step forward when it opened back in 1996, but Larson died of an undiagnosed heart condition on the day it premiered off-Broadway.
The story is so poetic that even I, a dabbler in musical theater at best, knew it going into Tick, Tick… Boom!, and this iteration plays into the dramatic overlays of this real-life tragedy. I don’t know if this addition creeped into the revisited stage productions as well (again, I’m a dabbler not an expert), but how it manifests and mixes with a film adaptation of a thirty year old show makes for a movie that is both a heartfelt tribute to a man beloved by his peers and an outdated, solipsistic take on the tortured artist trope.
The musical in its original form, as far as I can tell, is about the latter, with Larson featured as a pseudo-autobiographical figure about to turn thirty and still laboring on his lone, unproduced musical. The ticking clock referenced by the film’s title is counting down to that big birthday, a marker, he feels, that will mean he’s no longer young. Not being young means he can’t keep living the life of a struggling artist, which mostly involves waiting tables at a diner, spending money he doesn’t have on parties for his also struggling friends, and looking down on anyone who doesn’t choose to live in the glory of New York City. There is some interrogation of this pretentious outlook, but it’s few and far between, and instead the movie indulges in what many describe as the hallmarks of brilliant but unseen artistry. David Rakoff, in a hilarious and biting critique of Rent that appeared on This American Life, outlined them best:
“Start plinking out a tune on a piano. Scratch a few notes on some music paper. Plink some more. Suddenly crash both hand down on the keyboard, then bring them quickly up to your head and grab the hair on your temples screaming, it won’t work!”
Pretty much all of this appears in Tick, Tick… Boom!, and the obliviousness of its shortcut posturing would be funny if it wasn’t pulled off with such earnest love. This is directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who himself was launched into musical theater superstardom with Hamilton, but unlike Larson he lived to reap the benefits. Miranda proves here that he knows how to stage a musical number for the screen (a feat that’s been messed up many times recently), but more importantly, that he knows how to modulate the flood of emotions that characterize stage productions. In a smart move, the emotion he overwhelms you with is directed not at the basic story of tortured artistry Larson intended but at a broad love of musical theater and the specific love of Larson, a man whose work pushed Broadway in new directions.
Unfortunately, that basic story is still the backbone of Tick, Tick… Boom!, and it’s aged even less gracefully than Rent has. I’ve been aware of rumbling critiques of Rent for some time (see Rakoff’s take, among others). Again, I’m no expert, but much of it coalesced in my mind around its portrayal of AIDS, which bleeds into Tick.
So the timeline is clear, Tick was written and performed by Larson before Rent, so it’s not exactly surprising that similar issues arise. Also important to note, Larson never got the chance to take in and respond to these critiques himself. Maybe his later work would’ve reflected a more self-aware take of his position in the tragedy, but it is odd how this updated version does little to minimize that Tick is so obviously rooted in a white, cishet man’s rather minimal problems driving him to be an absolute jerk to queer people, people of color, and queer people of color.
That’s not to say that Larson didn’t have a part in the tragedy. He lived in New York in the height of the epidemic, and per this movie (an aspect I’m taking as fact) he lost many friends. That’s a toll, a lived experience, and he has every right to put that into his art. But to stage it as him being cruel to a person who is HIV positive, be easily forgiven by them, and to learn something valuable from the revelation is an uncomfortable narrative that simply can’t get a pass in 2021. There’s also a whole number that stages Andrew Garfield as Larson sitting in front of an imagined Alexandra Shipp as she belts out a showstopper, who both perform the number well (as they do throughout the whole film), but is such a literal staging of a woman of color as a white man’s imagined muse that it’s hard not to get uncomfortable.
And yet, much like that number, the film just barely manages to work despite all the cringe. Miranda gets across a deep, earnest appreciation of Larson, Garfield plunges into the melodrama, and the film becomes a fitting homage to a man whose work is both important and worthy of critique. In that sense it’s a very honest film, likely in ways the filmmakers didn’t intend, and is, perhaps, the best you can do with the material.
Release: in theaters now and on Netflix worldwide November 19th
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writers: Steven Levenson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Vanessa Hudgens, and Joshua Henry