Review – Explosive Musical About Hope (“Tick, Tick. . . Boom!”)

If they say that an artist suffers for their art, then no one suffered more than playwright & songwriter Jonathan Larson, who died too young at 35. He only wrote only two musicals, but they were both ahead of their time and filled with tragedy and loss, much like his own life.

In this semi-autobiographical account, Larson (Andrew Garfield) is performing in his new musical, Tick, Tick. . . Boom! to a small off-Broadway audience. During this musical, Larson recounts how he got this far, the hurdles he had to jump, the losses he faced, and the tragic events that nearly ended his career (short-lived that it sadly was). Much like All That Jazz, we ping-pong back and forth from Larson’s storytelling performance on stage to how he got there which starts, like all starving artists in NYC, as a waiter in a diner. He’s been working on a musical called Superbia for eight years and is ready to workshop it, but is lacking two crucial things: money to fund it and a few songs. So, no pressure.

As the days tick by until its big debut, Larson is facing many hardships. His talented dancer girlfriend, Susan Wilson (Alexandra Shipp), has a job opportunity upstate and wants him to join her, his ex-actor friend, Michael (Robin DeJesus), is a hot-shot ad exec and wants Larson to join him, his co-worker & buddy at the Moondance Diner is dying of AIDS, and his theater producer, Ira Weitzman (Jonathan Marc Sherman) wants to make cuts in Larson’s work. Well, at least the one and only Steven Sondheim (Bradley Whitford; an uncanny resemblance) likes his music, so that’s something! And if that wasn’t enough, Larson has set himself an impossible goal: to be a successful Broadway playwright before he’s 30-years-old. . . and he’ll be that in a few days! So again, no pressure.

Finally, Superbia, his labor of love, blood, sweat, and tears opens to a select house of producers and Sondheim himself, but as Larson’s agent (Judith Light) tells him, “Keep writing, kid. Write what you know”. Devastated, Larson would take his exhausting and frustrating experience to off-Broadway (Tick, Tick. . . Boom!) and then later write his masterpiece based on what he knew, Rent. If this screenplay reads familiar, it should. It was written by Steven Levenson, famous for his Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen, and TV’s Emmy-nominated mini-series, Fosse/Vernon. Like a mash-up of several episodes of TV’s Smash, this is more than your standard musical bio-pic; much more. The movie transitions back and forth effortlessly from Larson on stage to his backstory and the moments in between.  

And oh! Larson’s music is both heart-lifting and heartbreaking, something that musical prodigy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, knows all too well. You can add ‘movie director’ to this man’s many talents, as he proves he’s one helluva filmmaker. His skill is apparent as the camera imitates the action and tempo, moving around with the music like it was part of the beat. For a first-time director, that’s gotta be impressive.

And the casting is just as impressive, with Garfield (in a strong role) actually doing his own singing (who knew Spider-Man could belt out a tune?). Shipp, DeJesus, and practically the entire cast are a who’s who in musical theater and that’s just fine with me. You can see their passion, joy, and love for music & theater in this beautiful & moving timepiece about a man whose life was tragically cut short.

**Now showing in selected theaters and streaming on Netflix.  

Rent (2005)

After he wrote Tick, Tick. . . Boom!, writer, composer, and lyricist Jonathan Larson came up with this updated version of Puccini’s 1896 opera, La Boheme. Did it work? How about this musical running on Broadway for over twelve years and making a ton of money! I’d say YES!!

This film adaptation features six of the original Broadway actors and pulled no punches when it came to dealing with sexuality, AIDS, drug use, and the gritty East Village section of NYC during the late 80’s. It’s Christmas Eve and aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp) and his roommate, HIV-positive musician, Roger Davis (Adam Pascal), learn that their rent, previously waived by their old friend and landlord, Benny Coffin III (Taye Diggs) is due. Their AIDS-infected gay former roommate, Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), shows up and gets mugged. Welcome to NYC!

When Mark and Roger meet with Benny, he tells them he plans to evict the homeless from the nearby lot and build a cyber studio there. However, Benny will offer them free rent IF they get Maureen (Idina Menzel), Mark’s ex-girlfriend, to cancel her musical protest against Benny, but they refuse. A street drummer and flamboyant drag queen, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), finds Collins and they bond since they both have AIDS. Roger, a former drug addict, tries to compose his one last great song (“One Song Glory“), but he’s interrupted by his downstairs neighbor, Mimi Marquez (Rosario Dawson), an exotic dancer and heroin addict who’s looking for a light.

Living the “bohemium lifestyle” isn’t working out for some, as friendships are tested daily, money runs out, and you’ll do anything to fix things. It’s a bleak Christmas Day when Mark and Roger are visited by Collins and Angel, now in full drag. They invite Mark and Roger to attend Life Support, an AIDS support group, but Roger turns them down. As Mark goes to fix Maureen’s sound equipment for her performance later, he runs into Joanne (Tracie Thoms), Maureen’s new girlfriend. Mark films the Life Support meeting for the documentary that he’s making about people living with HIV/AIDS. After Maureen’s performance starts a riot, Mark is able to sell his footage of the riot. Well, at least that’s something.

Roger and Mimi reveal that, not only are they falling for each other, but they’re both HIV positive. Things get worse as, on New Years Day, Benny has padlocked their apartment. Mark takes a job at Buzzline, the television news program that bought his riot footage. Maureen proposes to Joanne, but the relationship ends when Maureen flirts with another woman at an engagement party. Benny, feeling bad, gives the group back their apartment. Over the following year, Angel dies, Mimi almost does, and Mark’s documentary is shown for the first time as the signature song, “Seasons of Love”, is sung. Yeah, this is one pretty depressing movie.

Fans of the stage version nixed this film, saying it didn’t capture the essence of the Broadway musical. Well, that’s true. Take ANY Broadway musical and adapt it to film and you face certain problems, mostly because celluloid (or video) can’t replicate the magic of live theater. Oh, they tried though! Rent, Live! was done in 2019 on Fox TV and was plagued with problems, like actor Brennin Hunt who was playing Roger. He broke his foot during dress rehearsal! Ouch! With some camera trickery, they used both live and pre-recorded rehearsal footage to hide his injury.   

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