Tick, Tick… Boom!

I never saw the musical Rent, and I am not familiar with its soundtrack, but I do know that the show's writer/composer Jonathan Larson died from an aneurysm at the age of 35, the night before Rent opened on Broadway in 1995: it's one of the most tragic moments in showbiz history. Because my wife knows Rent rather well, it was for her sake that I offered to watch Tick, Tick... Boom! with her on Netflix. I'm glad I did.

Tick, Tick... Boom! originated in 1990 as a one-man show for Larson, a "rock monologue" in which Larson, through song and story, related the mostly autobiographical tale of a struggling composer named Jon who was obsessively trying to write and sell a musical – and the toll it took on his relationships. In the film, director Lin-Manuel Miranda restages Larson's work with a live band, interspersing scenes on the stage with scenes set in Larson's real life (the screenplay is by Steven Levenson, writer of Dear Evan Hansen). Sometimes Larson's songs are performed during his stage set, sometimes in the real world. It all works, and Andrew Garfield delivers a wonderful, highly enthusiastic performance as Larson.

What I found most surprising about Tick, Tick... Boom! is how easily it made me get to know its creator. Like most folks, I never heard Larson's name until he was already dead. But his show, which he first performed at 30, depicts a talented artist bursting with energy at the beginning of his career, and a man weighing his self-centered ambitions against the needs of his girlfriend and the horrors of his friends' battles with AIDS. Although it won't be lost on anyone watching this film that Larson himself would have just five more years to live – tick, tick indeed – Miranda wisely avoids any foreshadowing or sense of fatalism. (Larson's passing is briefly mentioned at the beginning and end of the film, in voiceover.) As a result, we are given a lively and alive portrait of a particular individual, and how he was feeling at a particular time and in a particular place. It is to the credit of Miranda, Garfield, and Larson himself that we feel truly transported into the buzzy, funny, anxious world of the late composer.