I mentioned on this blog before that Rent was one of my first musical loves back in my teenage days. I knew of Tick, Tick…BOOM! But up until now, I didn’t do a deep dive into the musical. The Netflix adaptation, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, was my first experience watching it. I knew I would be hooked from the trailer because it included “Boho Days,” a deleted song from the original musical.
What’s interesting about this movie is that the stage show of Tick, Tick…Boom! acts as the framing device. Susan narrates the beginning and the ending, but most of the show centers on Larson narrating his life as he tries to get a show that he created produced on Broadway.
I want to give all the kudos to Andrew Garfield for being such a chameleon of an actor. Many people on Twitter have pointed out how Garfield nails ever tiny movement and expression Jonathan Larson had. 30/90 was the song I looked forward to the most.
Throughout the opening number, Jonathan makes small talk with his fellow diner workers. Jonathan is planning to quit his job at the Moondance diner so that he could focus more on his big musical: Superbia. It’s really interesting that while Tick, Tick…Boom! starts out on the stage (and still shows parts of the on-stage performance), there are also a lot of moments where Larson is singing in his apartment and even at a bookstore, complete with backup dancers and singers. Howard Ho, you better have a good insight on this!
Just so you know, there are a lot of shout outs to Rent throughout this movie. For a complete list, check out Kristen Maldonado’s video:
There are a lot of moments throughout the movie where Jonathan Larson writes lyrics into a memo pad. These lyrics would eventually build up to become “Louder than Words.” It feels like such a realistic way for a song to come together, especially when you look into the Rent demos and see how much the musical changed from the New York Theatre Workshop.
One particular subplot that is woven throughout the movie is Jonathan’s relationship with Susan, who performs in modern dance shows. Susan got a job teaching dance in the Berkshires which is all the way up in New England. Jonathan, unfortunately, isn’t sure if he wants to move up there with her. On the other hand, Michael is moving up to a swanky apartment, complete with a doorman and other luxuries. “No More” reminds me so much of how “Rent” sounds, musically.
In the midst of all this, Jonathan is working on Superbia, a musical he worked on for eight years. (Eight years was also the same amount of time he worked on Rent.) Unfortunately, much like Roger in Rent, Jonathan needs one more song to complete the musical. In “Johnny Can’t Decide,” Jonathan deals with a major case of writer’s block while trying to decide if he want to move with Susan.
As timeless as the movie feels, though, there are plenty of reminders that this story takes place in the early 90s, most notably the AIDS epidemic. At night, Larson watches the news as some Republican congressman shows how little things have changed in the past 30 years. The following morning, one of Jonathan’s coworkers, Freddy, misses out on work because he got hospitalized.
“Sunday” is a really interesting because for one thing, there are over a dozen cameos from various Broadway stars. I hate to say it, but Andrew Garfield was majorly out-sung in this number. I could hear Philippa Soo really well in this one. My favorite part of the number was when Jonathan starts arranging all the people in the diner and the bums on the street like a stage director.
Another instance of 90s nostalgia is “Play Game,” which is styled as a very retro MTV music video. It’s based on an actual song that Jonathan did, complete with him dancing around in a baseball cap like he’s Vanilla Ice. I am very glad that Lin-Manuel Miranda chose to do the retro style and only showed a small segment of Jonathan Larson trying to rap cuz rap is not Larson’s strong point. High concept musicals, however, definitely are.
When Jonathan explained the concept of Superbia, my jaw dropped at how ahead of its time the idea of the musical was. Inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, Superbia, to quote Larson in movie is…
A satire set in the future on a poisoned planet Earth, where the vast majority of humanity spend their entire lives just staring at the screens of their media transmitters watching the tiny elite of the rich and powerful who film their own fabulous lives like TV shows.
That musical concept was made for the 21st century.
Unfortunately, Larson is dealing with so much on his plate: his friend is in the hospital, he still can’t create the song he needs for Act 2, he misses Michael, and he can’t decide what to do with Susan. Larson decides to take on a focus group gig if it means getting the money to pay for a keyboard player and a drummer. Turns out the extra money was worth it.
Seriously, social media, GET ON MAKING A SUPERBIA REVIVAL! Songs and dances from TikTok, story bits from YouTube, characters with accounts on Twitter and Instagram.
One hilarious part of the movie was “Therapy.” It plays out like a 500 Days of Summer “expectations vs reality” situation. The song performed on stage is a comedic, neurotic argument that goes faster and faster while Susan and Jonathan have a very raw argument in Larson’s apartment.
Things start to spiral downward from there. Larson goes to the focus group session, but it’s very draining and brain-numbing, which leads to an argument with Michael. Then, just as Jonathan gets inspired, the power blows. This leads to the song “Swimming.”
“Swimming” reminds me a lot of “Contact” as it’s a very stream-of-consciousness song that Jonathan narrates himself swimming as he’s trying to look for inspiration and deal with the problems in his life. Then the inspiration finally hits him as he swims and he starts composing his song the old fashioned way.
Finally, the big day comes when he presents Superbia to the world. And it’s everything he wanted…but it doesn’t lead to his big break like he hoped. All Jonathan can do is work on whatever comes next and his agent tells him the first rule of writing: Write what you know.
Jonathan is in a crisis because he feels like he’s running out of time. Of course, he doesn’t know what we, in the future, know, that he actually was running out of time. But Michael brings Jonathan back to reality, revealing that he has HIV.
“Why” acts as the big 11 o’clock number and it’s a big tear-jerker. Jonathan comes back to Michael and tells him about a support group that actually exists called Friends In Deed. Jonathan also decides to keep working at Moondance, with the promise of a mentorship from Stephen Sondheim.
The end of the film is a bittersweet one because Jonathan and Susan part ways and the inevitability of Jonathan Larson’s real life death comes crashing down. “Louder Than Words” acts as the finale, sort of a bridge between Tick, Tick…Boom! and Rent. The parallels are definitely there. “Louder Than Words” asks “Why,” “Rent” asks “How.”
As someone on the cusp of turning 32, this musical really hits for me and I feel like I was watching this movie at the perfect time. So much and so little has changed, but if there’s one thing I took from this, it’s that artists shouldn’t give up on their dreams of creating something that has meaning.