Today is November 19th, 2021. All over the world, friends of mine are watching Amazon’s “The Wheel of Time,” by our beloved Creator, Robert Jordan. They’re sharing wonderful stories and pictures of themselves in costumes and shawls, which is awesome. I know you can find many lovely blogs, podcasts, and YouTubers talking about it.
This review, however, is not about WOT, as I am here to talk about the new Netflix film “tick, tick… BOOM!” that was also released today. This film is a semi autobiographical telling of a portion of the composer Jonathan Larson’s life. It is Lin-Manuel Maranda’s directorial debut, starring Andrew Garfield.
Many people know Jonathan Larson because of his musical “RENT.” But before he was “RENT” famous, Jonathan Larson wrote a little show called “tick, tick… BOOM!,” a three person musical, which in some ways I like better than RENT. Most people have never heard of it, though its been a personal favorite for decades, long before I’d ever heard of WOT. It gets to the heart of what it means to be an artist and performer; and that fire that is all consuming to leave your mark no matter what other struggles you’re dealing with. Then the heartbreak of starting all over again.
People have frequently compared Lin-Manuel Miranda to Larson, and said “Hamilton” was to “In the Heights” as “RENT” would have been to whatever Larson got to write next. Sadly, Larson passed away suddenly at the age of 35, right before “RENT’s” first public showing. Sometimes I wonder if this is why LMM (may he live forever!) works as hard as he does on so many different things- its all about the legacy and getting as much done with the time we’re given as possible. This drive to make, create, and write their way into our lives gave me good hope about LMM as the director, because I figured he’d “get it” more than your average Hollywood director would. I am happy to say, I was not disappointed. He made some excellent choices, and brought the story to life with tenderness and respect.
Going into my viewing I was excited, and nervous, especially regarding casting. Spiderman singing? Hmm, okay… And I knew Vanessa Hudgens was in it. She’s got a pretty face, but generally, her acting isn’t swell. (Though, not gonna lie, I’ll probably still watch the Princess Switch 3 anyway.) I was pleasantly surprised. Garfield was likable, and relatable, and had a voice that fit well for the part. Hudgens did far more singing than speaking, which was fine with me. I now look forward to seeing more of Robin de Jesus, an unknown to me before this, who plays Larson’s best friend, Michael. And, I have to admit, this Broadway Baby burst into tears more than once. The story and the struggle of being a creative person trying to find and birth their “thing” is so relatable to me.
“tick, tick… BOOM” is set during the end of Larson’s “Superbia” era, which he produced in 1989. But despite spending almost a decade writing it, it’s never really seen the light of day. Garfield’s Jonathan is touchingly portrayed as a kind of 1990’s Orpheus. Not a bad guy by any means; but one who is consumed and driven by his mission and music so much that it causes him to sometimes be neglectful towards those he loves. (Speaking of Broadway and Orpheus, if you haven’t checked out the musical Hadestown, please do so! Its one of the best things to come out in musical theatre in years, and does a wonderful job of making an old tales modern and relevant.) I really appreciated the diversity of the rest of the cast, all ages and body types were represented.
There are theatre and film related cameos all through the movie. The biggest numbers show up in the writing workshop, and a song called “Sunday.” My goodness, if you know your Broadway history and actors, wow, that was cool to see everyone. Small spoiler- Bernadette Peters was one of the cameos. I met her when she came to do a show at the theatre I worked at. She was lovely to work with, and is a surprisingly tiny person for as big of a voice as she has! André De Shields is another, whom I did not meet, but did get to see perform live when I was in the audience for the recording of PBS’s Great Performances for “Play On!” This article from Slate has a good breakdown of everyone to show up. Most are uncredited, so you won’t find them on IMDB, but there are award winning actors, writers, composers, family, and friends, etc. It is a testament to both Jonathan Larson and to LMM that all of these folks were willing to show up and be a part of this project.
They took out one of my favorite lines of the musical (shared below), but they did a great job of portraying that statement, so I am very satisfied. I highly recommend you watching it, once you’re done binging WOT. Make sure you watch through the credits too, as it shows several videos of the real Jonathan. If you listen to the old recording of the show, you can hear Jonathan’s voice at the end of that as well. This line gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.
I want to write music
I want to sit down
Right now at the piano
And write a song that
People will listen to and remember
And do the same thing every morning
For the rest of my life