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Jeevan praises Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film tribute to the late musical theatre genius Jonathan Larson.

Self-righteous, self-aggrandising, inconsiderate. These could all describe Jonathan Larson aptly. He’s an unfortunately likeable protagonist, one that time and time again has you wincing because of his seeming lack of empathy, his inability to recognise his privilege, or his general folly. But somehow you’re with him all the way. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Steven Levenson are just so adept in their characterisation. They’ve created something marvellous. 

Their film adapts the stage musical Tick Tick…Boom!, which was written by the real Jonathan Larson who our main character represents. Because Larson’s musical itself is, in effect, about himself, here we have just as much a biography as a musical film. Larson is simultaneously a creative genius and the living embodiment of chaos. His self-obsession, though brilliantly portrayed by Andrew Garfield, is perhaps already evident without the film even starting. Tick Tick…Boom!, an already semi-autobiographical musical, spends much of its time on Larson’s writing of…another musical. This other musical, Superbia, is accorded heaps of praise by none other than Stephen Sondheim. Its execution is painful, gobbling up years and years as Larson maintains a job waiting tables and disdains those who love and care about him.

"Larson’s sacrifices, especially his isolation from those close to him, powerfully portrays the brutality of the performing arts."

It’s a poignant struggle. His friends are dying (this is New York in the 80s). And while not the epicentre of the film, the milieu of the AIDS crisis makes Larson’s pursuit of breaking into Broadway seem morally dubious to some. He’s seen as wasting a life that he has the privilege of still living. It makes the film gutting. Of course, you want Larson to succeed, but the sheer unfairness of AIDS looms large. AIDS is a political tragedy, but there's a personal tragedy too. The real Jonathan Larson deserves this film because he deserved to see his own success. A sudden aortic dissection meant that he never got to see his musical Rent performed, let alone its 12-year Broadway career. Larson’s sacrifices, especially his isolation from those close to him, powerfully portrays the brutality of the performing arts. It’s all the more necessary in a post-Covid realm, where breaking into the creative industries without immense privilege will only get harder.

The social commentary gives the film a formidable construct, but it’s still secondary to the homage paid to the real Jonathan Larson, this creative mastermind taken from us too soon. Tick Tick…Boom is a celebration of Larson’s life and through it we get to see the human being behind the composer, who himself never got to see how good he truly was.

He’s annoying as fuck, and he had every right to be. 36 is no age at all.


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