Movie Review: Exploring the bittersweetness of artistry in “Tick, Tick…Boom!”

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Upon the shoulders of every artist, there exists the dreary burden of reality that success is unlikely to happen in his or her lifetime — or ever. Very few sacrifice their friendships and relationships, the possibility of a steady paycheck, and their dignity for the sake of their passion. Lin-Manuel Miranda explored this reality that Jonathan Larson lived by releasing the new film “Tick, Tick… Boom!” on Nov. 12, 2021.

The film is set in 1992, during the performance of Larson’s rock monologue “Tick, Tick… Boom!,” where he described a constant ticking sound he would hear in his head — then launched into his narrative. Two years prior, Larson lived in a rundown apartment in New York City as a struggling writer, working as a waiter at the Moondance Diner to pay the bills and preparing his musical “Superbia” for his very first workshop presentation. 

Though tempted by corporate comfort and the sweet song of his girlfriend Susan’s love, Larson strives to do his best for the workshop. The performance is sweet, even receiving praise from Stephen Sondheim, but it does not warrant an offer from any producer. 

Larson becomes discouraged, even more so when his friend Michael reveals he is HIV positive. 

This upsetting news forces him to reflect on the bitter sacrifices he has had to make for his artistry: a broken relationship, a damaged friendship and the lost comfort of a stable job.

The film ends as Larson celebrates his 30th birthday at the Moondance Diner, celebrating with his friends and parting with his girlfriend, Susan, on amicable terms. She then discusses his refusal to surrender to his despair — instead he continues to write “Tick, Tick… Boom!” and “Rent,” a musical that revolutionized Broadway for several years to come. 

Unfortunately, he never was able to see his musical’s success, as he died from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm the night before “Rent” began previews Off-Broadway. He was 36 years old. 

The plot itself is based on the real Larson, creator of “Rent” and posthumous recipient of three Tony awards. Though Miranda did take certain artistic liberties, the overall plot attempts to depict the quality of life Larson undertook as realistically as possible. 

Though in terms of morality, Larson’s actions and choices were reproachable — as social creatures and people of Christian faith, we are called to love and serve people, not temporal things like material objects and worldly success — but that is not the point of the movie. 

The movie shows the two realities in which artists live: the glimmers of hope, loveliness and success that are so deliciously tempting and fulfilling and the ever-present loneliness, bitter sacrifice and ugly obsession they may lead to. 

Andrew Garfield took up most of the screen time, sharing his never-before-heard voice and exploring the ragged, chaotic genius that Larson was. The rest of the characters complimented him, though it would have been nice to see Susan and Michael’s backstories and explanations behind the choices. 

A nice Hamiltonian touch that Miranda added was the inclusion of his actress friends Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry in the ensemble — Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, respectively, in the original cast of “Hamilton.”

Finally, though the musical genre tends to switch sporadically, it accurately depicts the general chaos of emotions Larson felt. It also reflects the change from the “West Side Story” sort of Broadway show tunes to the new concept of the 90’s rock musical, which would bring Larson said posthumous success. 

However, the leaps between the actual rock monologue and the past narrative are somewhat confusing — one or two time skips would grant more clarity to the overall plot without detracting from its mystery. 

As a reviewer, I would give this musical film a solid four stars and would recommend it to any frustrated artist needing a bit of a procrastinating-worthy escape.

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