“Everything you are about to see is true. Except for the parts Jonathan made up.”
So says the new Netflix movie Ticking, Ticking… BOOM!a show within a show, the true story of the American composer Jonathan Larson.
Larson died in 1996 at the age of 35, on the day of the first Off-Broadway preview performance of his latest work, Rent.
The show would run on Broadway for 12 years, the 11th longest running show on the Great White Way.
His autobiographical musical, Tick, Tick… Boom!in which he laments that he had not created a successful play before the age of 30, was initially staged in 1990 but after his death it was staged again in 2001 and as a result received a completely new, poetic context.
This film by Lin-Manuel Miranda, in his feature film directorial debut, captures all of this in an evocative way led by actor Andrew Garfield (The social network, The Amazing Spiderman) as 29-year-old Larson.
Miranda juxtaposes Larson at the piano performing to an off-Broadway crowd with scenes from his life with creative New York friends in the 1990s, holding down a job at a diner, sweating over a keyboard, and raising money for his latest music lab, a dystopian rock musical called ‘Superbia’ (are you keeping up?).
Ideas and songs collide constantly, on stage, in the street, in restaurants and on rooftops, but Larson’s life force brings it all together. The burning need for success before turning 30 is evidenced by the early successes of Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford) and the pressure of her parents.
Not even girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) can distract him from his insatiable quest and there’s a rocky friendship with gay friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) who has seemingly given up worldly ambitions for worldly possessions. Yes, he works in advertising.
But as the day draws near to his Pride presentation for potential backers, Larson doesn’t seem capable of writing a missing song upon which a story turning point hinges. Her raucous agent Rosa (Judith Light) sent out the invites, even though she thinks her show contains spaceships and aliens…
Larson is a believer and purist of musical theater. All around him are megamusicals (I guess Starlight Express, Ghost, Chess), but his search for inspiration tears him apart, all while trying to keep a job, friendships, and life. Unequivocally, also around him is the HIV-AIDS epidemic in New York’s gay and theater communities….
Throughout the film there are songs composed by Larson, performed by Garfield and co-stars Robin de Jesús, Alexandra Shipp, Mj Rodriguez, but also by the laboratory actors Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens, the last two are sublime in solo roles interpretation. But Garfield is the star in a tour de force role.
There’s also a brilliant homage to Sondheim with some unexpected cameos for real actors, but you’ll have to find out for yourself.
While the film is a life-affirming experience, it’s impossible not to reflect on what might have been had Larson lived longer than his 35 years on our planet.
Do not miss it.
Ticking, Ticking… BOOM! airs Friday, November 19 on Netflix.