Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on Fire!
When I was an undergrad, I was an English lit major, and a lot of the people I hung around with were also English lit majors. There are few students at any college more pretentious and up their own ass than English majors. Once, at a party, a poet friend of mine had a fight with his girlfriend, and when she stormed out, I watched him count on his fingers for the right aesthetic moment to chase after her, into the snow barefoot, without his coat. I also dabbled in theater for a semester and even acted in a play. I say this to show that there are students who are more up their own ass than English majors; they’re all in theater. This is important, because tick, tick…BOOM! is very much about theater people.
I also need to say that when I started this blog a really long time ago, I was not shy about the fact that I’m not a huge fan of musicals as a genre. It’s probably still my least favorite genre of film in general, although I have mellowed on them in general. There is a subgenre of musical that I really don’t like a lot, though, and that’s musicals about musicals. This is important, because tick, tick…BOOM! is absolutely that.
This is a version of the play tick, tick…BOOM! written by Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield), who went on to write Rent, and who died of an aortic aneurysm right before it opened on Broadway. This was his second musical, and it was very much about the story of writing his first musical, dealing with his friends, breaking up with his girlfriend, and turning 30. A lot of that is good, but I cannot stress enough that a great deal of this musical is about writing a different musical. It’s an ouroboros, chomping its own tail, writing about writing and singing about singing.
Anyway, that really is what this is about. Larson, about to turn 30, has been working on a musical called Superbia for eight years, and has struggled with different aspects of it. He’s constantly behind on his bills, works at a diner to make ends meet as much as he can, and is desperate for any feedback he can get. And over the course of the film, he struggles with his best friend (Robin de Jesus) finding out he is HIV-positive and his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) leaving him and moving to another part of New York. He also manages to get feedback from Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), who tells him that he needs a song at the turn of the play.
Here's what I find so damnably frustrating about this story. Larson, who is desperate to get his show produced and on Broadway, who has gotten feedback from one of the most successful musical composers of the last half-century, proceeds to go two years or more not writing that song. Still needing that song, he arranges a workshop, and with 12 hours to go, his power gets shut off and at the last minute, he writes the song that makes the whole musical work. Drama, drama, drama. And all I could think about was how Jonathan Larson was counting on his fingers (tick…tick) until the right aesthetic moment to have his power shut off so he could run out into the snow barefoot and write his song (BOOM!).
There is a reason that I left the theater after a single semester and a single experience on stage in college, and that reason is that there were very few actors who didn’t make me stabby. Even more so than the pretentious poets and the pipe-smoking writers desperate to be seen as undiscovered genius, the actors who were all that while demanding all of the attention in the room drove me crazy. This movie is all that—extroversion, self-aggrandizement, and flash. It just makes me tired.
In fact, one of the most telling moments is when Susan and Jonathan have a huge fight. There is a moment when they have just barely reconciled and he hugs her, and we see him tapping his fingers on her shoulder. Susan backs out of the embrace an tells him that, during the fight, right in that moment, she knows he is trying to find a way to turn it into a song, which he denies. And then we see that song performed. Look at him go, running in the snow barefoot.
Look, I won’t disagree with the fact that Larson was a brilliant composer and a really talented guy. His death was absolutely a tragedy—he had a lot more in him that could have and should have come out and gone on the stage. But he also very much seems like someone I would have had a very hard time knowing in person or spending any actual time with. I don’t like the people in this movie, and it was hard to spend time with them.
I struggled with this because of that. I don’t care for the story being told and I don’t care for the people in the story. Good songs or no, that’s going to make this a struggle. I get why people would like it, and Andrew Garfield is very good in this. But I really didn’t like this as a movie.
Why to watch tick, tick…BOOM!: The performances are genuinely good.
Why not to watch: It’s a musical about musicals.