In some ways, Jon is as happy as a guy can be.
He’s got a cadre of good friends around him. His girlfriend, Susan, is just about perfect. He’s gifted with a bouncy personality and natural musical skills that many people would sell an eye or limb to possess. And he’s made his way to New York to follow a Broadway musical-creating dream.
Of course, there are a few things missing. Rent money is one. Recognition and success would be another. It’s been a long, hard road littered with more rejections than he can count. And then there’s the fact that so many of his talented friends have given up.
Jon came to New York with his best bud Micheal, a talented actor. But Micheal gave up the struggle and got a pretty lucrative job with an advertizing agency. Sure, a job comes with the perks of money and a nice place to live. But … Micheal gave up. He gave in. He didn’t follow through. And as far as Jon is concerned, there are too many others heading in the same direction.
Even Susan, who can dance with the best of them, is considering a move to the Berkshires to take a job as a dance instructor. The only reason she hasn’t gone yet is, well, because of Jon. She’s waiting for him to decide if he’d like to come with her. Or maybe just beg her not to go.
But Jon can’t think about any of that right now. He finally got a chance to workshop his musical, the one he’s been working on for seven years. And he has to make sure everything is perfect. This could be his big break. His exposure to important people. Or … it could be just one more failure, one more whiff.
In which case Jon will once again become just about as miserable as a guy can be.
Jon is operating from a place of earnest passion. And he’s willing to give up everything and barely eke out a living in pursuit of his dreams. That single-minded determination can sometimes make him oblivious to other’s needs.
But when events finally slap him upside the head—such as a good friend’s news of being HIV positive—he’s able to express his feelings and support his friends. It’s clear that Jon and his group of friends love one another. Friends regularly step up to support Jon. We also see scenes that harken back to a nearly life-long friendship between Jon and Michael.
The fact is, Jon is very gifted both musically and lyrically. Even Stephen Sondheim encourages and compliments him. But seemingly more important, Jon has the ability to face failure and keep driving forward. And this pic declares that’s the key to success.
This movie also suggests that even though we can get caught up in our disappointments, we need to keep our feelings in perspective. Jon is approaching his 30th birthday without any sign of success, for instance, and he laments that he’s “running out of time.” But then he realizes that he has so much more time than a friend who was just diagnosed with AIDS.
Jon laments seeing parents “saying the Kaddish over their children.” (The Kaddish is a hymn praising God that is recited during Jewish prayer services.)
Jon and Susan kiss several times. We see them fully dressed and laying in each other’s arms on Jon’s bed. They also begin kissing passionately and fall, panting, into bed at one point, but then stop.
Jon sings a song about a couple disagreeing; by the time they make up, “It’s too late to screw,” he notes. We see Jon look at scantily clad models in an underwear catalog.
A number of Jon’s friends are gay, including Michael (who laments not being able to marry at that point in the ’90s). And Jon makes mention of so many of his theater friends dying of AIDS. The camera catches sight of a posted flyer depicting two men kissing.
We see shots of Jon’s friend in a hospital bed, suffering from AIDS. Later, we hear that has died.
The s-word shows up three times, and “h—,” “a–,” and “crap” are all used once each. God’s and Jesus’ names are misused a total of five times (God being blended with “d–n” on one of those occasions).
Jon throws a party for friends and unpacks quite a few bottles of booze. We see he and others drinking beer and heavier alcohol.
When asked to free associate over the word “America,” the first things that jump to Jon’s mind are “Empire, racism, genocide and Vietnam.”
How do you convey the life, love and labored career struggles of a guy trying to make it on Broadway? Well, if that guy is a creative songwriter, you could use his own words.
That’s exactly what director Lin-Manuel Miranda does here with stylish musical aplomb. He takes Jonathan Larson’s own unproduced musical—a workshopped production called “tick, tick … BOOM!”—and uses it to give us a moving sense of the man’s life.
In case, you haven’t a clue who Jon Larson was, he’s the writer behind the long-running Broadway hit Rent. A man who struggled long and hard for an impassioned dream but died just before it came to fruition.
Jumping between a workshop of Larson’s musical and woven-in scenes from his life, Miranda adroitly uses a flair for visual production to keep us bouncing along through a world of hopes, crushing disappointments and ever-present dreams.
That said, the action here all takes place in 1990, so we also see a community that’s being devastated by the unchecked rampage of the AIDS virus. So, for all of the fun musical numbers and appealing buoyant presentation (in particular Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Larson), this pic also leans into some pretty painful moments in its sympathetic portrayal of gay characters.
Tick, Tick … Boom! definitely gives viewers a creative, often satisfying peek behind the musical-biz curtain. Fans of theater, especially, will likely find many points of connection here. But it’s also much more of a cautionary tale than you might expect. And the story’s welcoming affirmation of a nonbiblical sexual worldview merits consideration before you dance on in.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.