Jonathan Larson wrote musicals. Born in 1960, he grew up idolizing artists who had reached the peak of their artistic careers by the time they were 30. One of them, Stephen Sondheim, wrote the award-winning West Side Story when he was 27 and it was turned into an Oscar-winning movie just a few years later. For Larson, turning 30 was a major event and, by comparison, a disappointing marker – the “BOOM!” after all the ticking.
Larson wrote just three plays in his lifetime. The first, Superbia, never produced in New York, was based loosely on George Orwell’s 1984, exploring much of what he found dissatisfying in the world of the 1980s. His second musical was this one, tick, tick…BOOM!. During Larson’s lifetime, that play received a couple of Off-Off-Broadway productions but wasn’t picked up in any major way, until recently, in this movie adaptation.
But it was his third play, Rent, that not only ran on Broadway for 12 years – the 11th longest running Broadway production – but also received multiple Tony Awards as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. According to some, Rent revolutionized what a musical could be. It was especially noteworthy for portraying with compassion and accuracy, the life of New York City LGBTQ people during the AIDS crisis of the early ’90s. Nonetheless, Larson did not survive to see his own success. He died of an aortic dissection in 1996 on the night of the last dress rehearsal for the Broadway production of Rent. At just 36 years old everyone wonders what could have been.
So, this man is the main character. The encouragement he received after some initial readings of his first play were very mixed. No one really thought it was worthy of production, but it had hints of talent, which, if cultivated, could lead to success. His agent in the film told him to ‘write about what he knows.’ And so he did just that with his second play, this one, tick, tick…BOOM! It is ultimately the tale of how he wrote Superbia and how his passion for writing almost cost him everything of value in his personal life.
But this film may not appeal to everyone, and the reason might have to do with the structure of the play it is based on. It can get confusing where exactly we are in the story. The problem is that it tells a story within a story about telling a story. In fact, in an interview of two of the actors the film was compared with the science fiction classic Inception. If you recall, that film deals with dreams within dreams and bounces around between different layers of dream state.
So it is in tick, tick…BOOM! Based on the events surrounding the writing and ‘production’ of his first musical, we descend from the drama of his day-to-day life with his lover, friends, and diner co-workers, into the roles of the actors in his play as they are recreating – through songs – the story of the musical he is writing. If that isn’t potentially enough confusion, there are also multiple flashbacks to historical lives, some of them appearing to be older videos of the real Jonathon Larson.
One of the key elements in this film that provides hope and continuity is the idea of having a mentor or at least someone you admire and want to emulate. For Jonathon Larson, his idol and mentor, was Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim, it turns out, was ‘father-figured’ by none other than Oscar Hammerstein (Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The Sound of Music). And then, to bring it all the way home, Larson, even in his short life, exerted a singular influence on Lin-Manuel Miranda, who not only directed this film but also gave us the much acclaimed Hamilton musical.And so the threads continue. This film requires mental work to keep its many levels distinct and, if your definition of entertainment is on the light side, then I suspect this film may not work for you. But, even with that, the music is terrific. (4 Stars) tick, tick…BOOM! is streaming on Netflix. For more, visit MichaelsMovieMoments.com