"Tick, Tick… Boom!" (2021) — Try Again
+Guest Posts: Movie Wisdom By Guest Writer Luiza Beirão Campos—Issue #9
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Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) is a drama directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on the one-man show by Jonathan Larson, about Jon (Andrew Garfield), an aspiring music composer and playwright who struggles to complete his musical and gain success before he turns 30.
Life Lesson: Don’t make decisions out of fear.
🍿Movie Scene Link (movie quote)
Luiza Beirão Campos writes about books, movies, and series in read, watch, binge.
Have you ever been to a play and been transported to its world?
Tick, Tick… Boom! mimics this idea extremely well. It starts with a performance of the one-man show Tick, Tick… Boom! on stage, which tells the story of Jonathan Larson himself and how he was struggling with his career and turning 30. From there, we see the drama unfold over his apartment and many different settings in New York City (NYC).
Jon’s struggle with turning 30 is not simply because of the age itself, but what it represents for him. It means turning into an adult and having to conform to a boring job, or a life in the suburbs with his girlfriend. It notably means letting go of his dream of becoming a Broadway director, which has not yet happened.
He created this deadline for himself. If he couldn’t make the play that he had been working on for so many years before turning 30, he would give up on the idea of working in theater. Not only that, but he receives a last opportunity to showcase his musical to producers. That’s why he feels overwhelmed, running against time, with a clock ticking in his head.
To complicate things, his best friend offers him a job, and his girlfriend also gives up on being a dancer and gets an offer for a job outside of NYC. The world seems to ask him to settle down, but he is trying to make his play successful.
Although, of course, this is not really his last chance, or the definitive last chance, but that’s how he feels. He must learn a hard and important lesson: to keep on trying.
So what am I supposed to do now?
You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on, and that’s what it is to be a writer, honey.
Furthermore, the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the time adds to the feeling of urgency in the film. Many of the main character’s friends get the disease, and he loses some of them. He feels that life is too short for him not to pursue his dreams.
There’s a critical clash between him and his best friend in the movie that further exemplifies Jon's internal struggles. His friend wanted to become an actor, but gave up on his dreams for a corporate job. In a heated discussion between the two, his best friend tells him how privileged he is to go after his dreams. And I think this is also an important message. Not everyone can afford to go after what they want while earning almost nothing.
By the end of the movie, we see that Jonathan became famous by presenting his and his friends lives and struggles as a Broadway musical. He went on to create Rent, a musical about a group of impoverished young artists living in NYC. It is one of the most famous productions of all time. It ran for 12 years on Broadway, and went on to win a Pulitzer and a Tony Award.
Jon couldn’t enjoy his success though, because he died when only 35.
In retrospect, he had his reasons to feel like time was running out because, for him, it was indeed. That’s why I believe there are many lessons to be taken from the movie, but the main one is that life is too short. It can end at any moment. We should try to always make the most of it.
Living life to the fullest can also mean not being fearful. In the course of pursuing his dream, the question of whether he was being led by fear or love was constantly on his mind, and though he felt pressure and concern, he kept going.
Fear or love? Baby, don't say the answer. Actions speak louder than words.
— Lyrics from the last song, “Louder Than Words.”
I have been greatly influenced by the great writer and film critic Roger Ebert. I learned about movies, about making movies, and about film criticism from him. He’s even the reason “moviewise” has a Twitter account! Believe it or not, I learned about Twitter from him, and his is the first account I ever followed. I love that man, but there was one thing I never wanted to do that he did, which is to rage about how much I, hated, hated, hated, a movie! But here we are.
Let me first begin by clarifying my process. I always start a movie wanting to love it. I look at movies as treasure troves of wisdom after all, and eagerly await what they may reveal about the mysteries of life. So it is with great sadness and disappointment that I have to let you know that Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) is horrible.
It’s so horrible that I feel sorry for the man whose life was used as the basis for this portrayal. Jonathan David Larson, a musical theater composer, is a worthy subject who deserves a well-made documentary or bio pic about his incredible life, but this effort by first-time director Lin-Manuel Miranda that was distributed by Netflix isn’t it.
Tick, Tick… Boom! isn’t even a movie. It doesn’t deserve that classification. It’s a collection of eleven very badly made music videos, with no real dancing, no substantial choreography, no dazzle. These music videos are so bad, they wouldn’t get broadcast on MTV when it ONLY showed music videos. And these cheesy, cringe inducing, badly lip-synched, awkward music videos are strung together by voiceover narration—which is widely considered to be the laziest tool in filmmaking—from not just one but TWO narrators! It also has the thinnest, least dramatic storyline ever. Why is the story so thin? Because within the first two minutes of the film the whole dramatic arc of Larson’s life is revealed, matter of factly, by a vacuous, unexpressive voice that basically sounds like a bored high school student reading a paragraph out loud in remedial English class.
Of course all movies start out as good ideas, but it’s the execution that matters. The acting here is either flat and amateurish, or it’s overwrought overacting veering into self parody. All the characters come across as phony, somehow. The dialogue is unnatural, unrealistic, and cliché. The artificial lip synching is worse. It’s so bad that it sometimes feels like a parody of a musical. It feels like a silly satire that is not in on the joke. What a waste of time and potential.
But what about the music? It has two, maybe three, good numbers, while the rest of the songs are indistinguishable from each other and sound like the background music found in TV commercials. There is a mind numbing sameness to most of them, with the exception of the out-of-place rap song, the most insidiously monotonous of all musical genres, and the one for which Miranda is most well-known.
The soundtrack mostly consists of loud, obnoxious, and repetitive music that sometimes devolves into shouting with the same words hammered “over and over, and over and over, and over and over and over” (these are the actual lyrics from one of the songs). It’s boring, forgettable music, with no emotional weight, made even more wearisome by the lyrics, which mainly regurgitate the same action we see on screen. The music is distracting in a film format, and it probably worked better in the one-man show from which these songs were taken. The lyrics are basically stream of consciousness thoughts. It’s a pre-writing exercise that gets no further story development.
If you want to watch a good musical, watch West Side Story (1961), Fiddler On The Roof (1971), Grease (1978). These are hefty, entertaining movies with real drama and timeless, beautiful music that includes well choreographed dancing and set pieces. Two people flailing in slo-mo like they do in Tick, Tick… Boom! is not dancing. Even most Disney movies, The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) are better musicals than Tick, Tick… Boom! And by the way, the lyricist, Howard Ashman, who worked with composer Alan Menken on all of these Disney movies died painfully of HIV/AIDS at age 40. His is also a story that people interested in Jonathan Larson, who died at age 35, should also get to know.
But there is another critical reason the aforementioned movies are a thousand times better than Tick, Tick… Boom! In these movies, the music serves to move the story along. Tick, Tick… Boom! fails at this, the most basic aspect of a musical. The songs say nothing. For example, the main character’s roommate is moving to a new apartment, so the guy sings about moving to a new apartment. The guy feels sad, the guy goes swimming, the guy is in a diner, so there is a song—A SONG—about each of these things. Compare that to The Little Mermaid (1989), where a couple goes on a boat ride and the song is not about the trees, or the boat, or the boat ride. The song is about falling in love. Get it? In a good musical, each song moves the story far, far along and is integral to what happens before and after they are sung. That never happens in this production.
Instead, Tick, Tick… Boom! is tedious and vapid. It has a dramatic story to tell, but it’s too lazy in the way it was put together to tell it. Instead of showing a music composer struggling on a keyboard, for example, listening to notes, writing them down, changing his mind, the scriptwriter has him struggling to type WORDS in front of a computer monitor as if he’s a screenwriter and not a music composer whose big dramatic job is composing one more SONG before he turns thirty. This isn’t how music is created. It’s barely how writing is done. Have none of the people who worked in this film ever watched a music documentary or created real music?
Here is another example illustrating the lazy writing: there is a missing cat. What happened to the cat? A cat shows up for one scene, having been mentioned in the opening sequence as one of the main character’s possessions. So about the halfway mark, we see the unnamed cat as part of a montage when the guy is cleaning his apartment. The cat isn’t around before or after that moment. It’s as if the screenwriter just needed to fill pages, get the word count up, so he concocted a wordless montage to do the trick, where he stuck a cat in for some potty humor, and when the montage is done, the cat just disappears. Wham, bam thank you, cat! Again, watch almost any Disney movie to understand how animals can be used to further the storyline, create sympathy for the lead, and be endearing characters in their own right.
The conceit of Tick, Tick… Boom!, that time is running out because the main character is about to turn thirty and has no great success to speak of, is not dramatized. We’re just told this, so it feels superficial. Tick, Tick… Boom! does not show us, nor does it fully express or explain the drive or urgency of turning 30. So, there are no stakes. Nothing dramatic is set to happen on his 30th birthday—and nothing does.
Thus far then, we have a morose movie with no stakes, full of gratingly bad songs, and even worse acting. And how can we have sympathy for a lead character who thinks he can write the pivotal song of his musical in one week, and then when he doesn’t, think he can do it in one day, and then when he doesn’t, in 12 hours. Yeah, that’s why the song is not so great, Buddy!
This is an instructive point though, and the real message a viewer can get out of this mess, which is to look in the mirror and ask yourself this question: is all the suffering that you are going through—your own doing? If so, grow up. Be more responsible. Stop feeling entitled, and stop thinking that the world owes you something. It doesn’t. It’s a competitive world. Those who do not give up and stay productive get better at whatever they choose to do. That’s all there is to it.
The most profound part of the movie occurs when Jon’s agent, Rosa, essentially tells him to start again, to try again when his big debut fails to sell.
You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on, and that’s what it is to be a writer, honey. You just keep throwing them against the wall and hoping against hope that eventually, something sticks.
This is worth remembering, and it’s about the only true thing in the movie. Yes, please, keep trying; maybe the next one will stick.
There are a lot of great movies out there, so it’s clearly possible to make one. This one, however, gets a big thumbs down.
It’s tick, tick—BOOOOOOO!
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Thanks for posting! Also enjoyed your take on it. haha tick tick booo!