Tick, Tick… Boom: A Musical Celebration Amid Life Crisis


Andrew Garfield does a convincing job of personating Jonathan Larson in “Tick, Tick… Boom”, a musical biopic tracing the time he was on the cusp of turning 30.

Steven Levenson’s screenplay focuses heavily on the way Jonathan Larson struggles to maintain balance and find meaning in his chaotic New York apartment as the outlet of his creativity and showmanship. “Tick, Tick… Boom” feels like a ‘live’ performance art right from the beginning. As Susan Wilson (Alexandra Shipp) points out in the voiceover at the start, “Everything you’re about to see is true, except for the parts Jonathan made up.” 

The narrative bounces back and forth through Larson’s on-stage narration and perspective. It follows an aspiring artist constantly working his skill to create something new. It is a musical within a musical about a musical construct.

Jonathan Larson (extraordinarily zestful Andrew Garfield) is a tall 29-year old New Yorker who shares a cramped apartment with two roommates. Like his apartment, his hair is all over the place. But he has a burning desire to land a workshop for the wildly ambitious sci-fi musical “Superbia” he’s been laboring over for 8 years. He knows he’s talented but shuns showing off. Yet, he is broke, working as a waiter on weekend shifts at New York’s Mundance Diner near Soho. Besides, he feels discontented with how slowly his progressing in his musical career.

In 1990, his 30th birthday was coming. It is the age of a pivotal year for Larson as he wrestles with a tough decision toward a career path in arts. He reaches the stage in his life, reflecting on whether or not he has genuinely accomplished anything because his idol, the Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim, produced his first Broadway gig at 27. He is a typical tormented artist riddled with self-doubt about his artistic calling. The self-induced ordeal of his quarter-life crisis worsens when his best friend, Michael, is giving up on acting, starting a ‘real’ job in advertising, and leading a lucrative life on his own. Michael, who feels financially comfortable, confronts Larson, “You’re writing musicals in your living room, not saving the rainforest.”

The film, in its entirety, tracks the long path Larson needs to take to get his first musical credit going with all the hurdles along the way. “The film is about the universal artistic struggle, about what happens when you reach a certain point in your youth and decide whether to pursue your artistic dream or you’re going to sell out,” Andrew Weisblum, ACE, one of two editors on the film, tells NAB Amplify. “It’s about the life choices of Larson and of the impact of those life choices on those around him,” he adds.

The clock is indeed ticking for him – a countdown to age 30 by which he should have it all figured out, settle down and enjoy the ride. In his directorial debut, Lin-Manuel Miranda contributes much to the stage musical’s adaptation into what seems to be rich, raw, and authentic narratives while retaining musical celebration in its whimsical setting. During the early 90’s New York City, the growing moments of 1980s’ artistry are nearing its end, and the next generation has yet to shape the 90’s artistic landscape as it faces the challenge of art during HIV/AIDS epidemic in the theater community.

While the film romanticizes the story of Jonathan Larson, it further expands the plotlines into some soul-searching walkabout that entails re-evaluation of life decisions and sometimes stressful comparisons with peers and others. As Larson made it through the big 30, he was greeted with celebration rather than a sigh. He’s not running out of time. He’s just about to get started.

Turning 30 is not so terrible after all.

Tick, Tick… Boom” is on Netflix now. 

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