“Everyone’s unhappy,” Jon yells at Susan. “That’s what New York is!”
Set in New York in the 1990s, Andrew Garfield stars as the late playwright and composer Jonathan Larson before the premiere of Rent, a musical which made Larson famous posthumously. Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator and writer of Hamilton) and structured as a meta-musical, the film depicts a frustrated Larson who fears that, as he approaches his 30th birthday, he will never achieve the perfect Broadway debut he so hopes for. Larson’s friends are exhausted from their own quests into the world of Broadway and, with the cost of living rising in New York, many give up on their creative dream. But not Larson. He sets on an arduous journey navigating love, friendship and the pressures of New York all whilst bearing witness to the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic.
Tick, tick . . . BOOM! highlights the cut-throat nature of Broadway, and the intensive and obsessive strive for budding playwrights/actors/directors to get their ‘big break’. The film portrays a recurring character for these budding careerists as insular, chaotic and self-centred, highlighted by Lawson’s blind-eye towards the needs of his girlfriend and his dismissal of the generous job offer from his close friend, Michael. Originally, I believed this made the character of Larson unlikeable, yet by the end I admired the artist’s perseverance and creativity.
Tick, Tick… Boom! was originally an autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson himself, telling his story of being an aspiring composer. During his lifetime, Larson received very little acclaim. At age 35 he died of an aortic aneurysm the day before the first premiere of his smash masterpiece, Rent. Knowing about Larson’s tragedy before watching the film means that the viewer observes the film with a sense of looming tragedy hanging in the air. However, if one was to remove this element from the narrative, though being relatable to aspiring creatives, the film arguably has fallen into the trap of an indistinct plot, one that doesn’t allow viewers to care enough about Larson as a character. Aside from the dramatic irony of tragedy, the film could be perceived as just another story about a struggling playwright in New York.
However, the unique selling point of this film, and what is done so well, is the portrayal of the AIDS crisis. Larson’s childhood friend, Matt, was diagnosed with HIV in the early 1990s, and many of their close friends died of AIDS. This adds to Jon’s sense of urgency, believing that life is truly short and may be stolen away at any time. The AIDS crisis is an (ongoing) event so often forgotten by directors and film writers of productions set in the 80s/90s yet Tick, Tick… Boom! places this context as its backdrop. We are so fortunate to be living in a time when HIV infections are reducing in number year after year, and what resonates with the viewer in 2021 is the haunting fear for those living through this dreadful crisis.
Matt, thankfully, never contracted AIDS and is still alive today. Though Matt survived, 36.3 million people didn’t, and this we must not forget.
– Poppy Pearce
Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // tick, tick….BOOM! | Official Trailer | Netflix