In 1990, Rent author-composer Jonathan Larson turned 30 years old. At the time, he lived in a spartan loft in Lower Manhattan, near SoHo, working part-time in a dining room while developing a science-fiction musical called Pride, based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Fireogfirs. In the eight years since graduating from Adelphi University on Long Island, Larson had developed a reputation in the New York theater community as a promising young talent. But he was crushed and frustrated at how slowly his career was moving. He was still three years away from the first workshop of Rent, a groundbreaking musical with great success, which would not officially premiere until 1996 – the night Larson died unexpectedly.
In 1990, Lin-Manuel Miranda turned 10 years old. He lived with his parents in Upper Manhattan, near Washington Heights, and attended an exclusive elementary school aimed at talented students. By the end of the decade, he would be at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where – inspired by Rent – he would start developing the musical that would become the Broadway hit In the Heights. Miranda was 28 years old then In the Heights won the award for best music at Tony’s. At the age of 30, he wanted to be one of the most in-demand talents in the field of musical theater and make an entrance as a TV and film actor and writer. At age 35 – Larson’s age when he died – Miranda basked in the awards for her Broadway smash Hamilton.
Now at 41, Miranda has directed her first feature film: an adaptation of one of Larson’s pre-Rent plays, the autobiographical ones Tik, Tik … Bum! (The film’s limited cinema release begins on November 12, and it’s coming to Netflix on November 19.) Collaboration with screenwriter Steven Levenson – who wrote the Tony-winning book for Dear Evan Hansen and was also involved in running the TV miniseries Fosse / Verdon together with Miranda’s longtime collaborator Thomas Kail – Miranda has transformed Larson’s work into more of a straightforward biography of songs. The film tells the story of how the composer came through a crucial year of his life when he was close to giving up his Broadway dreams.
Andrew Garfield plays “Jon” at the beginning of Tik, Tik … Bum! sweats two big deadlines: his 30th birthday and a showcase in the industry for his ongoing work Pride. The film is basically a collection of vignettes from Jon’s daily life, showing him commuting back and forth between Moondance Diner and the cluttered work area in his attic, occasionally pausing to spend time with his neglected girlfriend Susan ( Alexandra Shipp) and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús).
Susan is a dancer looking for opportunities to earn a living somewhere other than the exorbitantly expensive New York. Michael gave up acting to work on commercials and tries to help Jon make extra money by doing market research, while suggesting he might be able to channel his talents in a more commercial direction. Jon remains committed to quitting Pride, however, encouraged by the positive feedback he has received from Broadway legends like Stephen Sondheim (played perfectly by Bradley Whitford).
Garfield does not have a background in musical theater, but he has long been a master at playing guys like Jon: kind-hearted but stubborn and willing to pursue their obsessions, even when it makes them hard to live with. (See: The amazing Spider-Man, 99 home, Hacksaw Ridge, Silence, Under Sølvsøen… The list goes on.) Garfield has a good enough voice for this role; Larson himself was, after all, not primarily known as a singer.
What Garfield really brings to the part is a sense of Jon’s boundless enthusiasm for all kinds of art and culture. He plays the character as someone who processes everything, from theater to rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop, cinema and politics, in terms of how he can turn it into a song. One of the movie’s big subplots is that while Jon sweats the reaction on Pride, he also collects notes on the 90’s New York bohemian and AIDS crisis that would eventually make it Rent.
But more is happening here than just a biography. Mirandas Tik, Tik … Bum! is a melancholy, slightly sad tribute to a creator who never managed to enjoy the benefits of his many hard years of wear and tear in relative obscurity. And it’s a personal reflection on New York’s fog of 1990, a time when the flourishing creativity of the 1980s was coming to an end and the next generation of artists had not yet emerged. Not everything Miranda and Levenson try with this film works, but even when it’s the most messy, the film is always meaningful.
That way, it’s a good fit for the source material, which is everywhere. Larson originally wrote it as a reaction to his struggle to get Pride produced. He performed it in various forms such as what he called “a rock monologue” that combined an eclectic set of pop songs with humorous anecdotes about his struggles. After Rent became a huge hit, asked Larson’s friend Victoria Leacock playwright David Auburn (best known for Proof) to get pregnant again Tik, Tik … Bum! as a small stage musical with a three-person cast, which eventually debuted Off-Broadway in 2001. This version has since been performed worldwide – including in a limited edition in 2014 with Miranda at the helm, about eight months before Hamilton premiered.
In other words, there is no “official” Tik, Tik … Bum! – not even this movie. The show began life as something like a sketchbook, in which Larson tried different ways to turn real life into theater while working on it. Rent (a project first brought to him in 1989 by playwright Billy Aronson, who first got the idea to convert Puccini’s opera Boheme to a story of New York from the late 20th century). To take their cues from what the original concert form of Tik, Tik … Bum! sat down to do, Miranda and Levenson scrapped some elements from the Auburn musical to fit in more about Larson and the city.
This choice sacrifices a certain narrative drive. At times, this film feels more like a collection of scenery than a proper story. And since the filmmakers are mostly limited to the songs Larson wrote for this piece, they do not have the tracks they need to get from the failure Pride to what came after. As a result, the end of the film feels a bit rushed.
But from moment to moment, this version of Tik, Tik … Bum! is heartfelt and moving. It’s a generous two-hour thank-you note from Miranda to the man who helped make his career possible. Several of the songs are show-stoppers, including the ballad “Why” (a touching reflection on Jon’s lifelong friendship with Michael), the chic “Boho Days” (which is like Rent compressed into three minutes), the comic “Therapy” (a dissection of a broken relationship, in the style of Kander and Ebb musicals such as. Chicago and Cabaret), and “Sunday” (a Sondheim-derived ode to brunch with an impressive list of cameos Netflix has asked critics not to reveal). Music theater enthusiasts would like to see the best tracks from this film on repeat, and there are many of them.
But people who well remember 1990 should be just as influenced by Miranda and his design team’s attention to detail. At some point, they recreate the look and feel of one Yo! MTV Raps era video. At another, they pan across Jon’s collection of books, tapes and vinyl LPs, which are heavy on Broadway but also feature some 1980s punk and classic rock. The film also captures how special it was every time PBS ran the film again American Playhouse episode with the original Broadway production of Sondheim’s Sunday in the park with George. The nostalgic anguish of a theater nerd from the late 80s / early 90s resonates.
When Larson wrote and rewrote Tik, Tik … Bum!, he was still sorry for the rejection Pride and regrets his lack of prospects. While the title of the play suggested that his time was running out, he had no idea he would have died a little more than five years later. What Miranda brings to her version is the gift of hindsight. Where Larson saw dead ends, Miranda can see new paths opening up. A man’s vision of a New York in decay is another’s memory of a city that is about to transform. What both Larson and Miranda understand, however, is that artists need to keep moving forward and marking where and while they can before running out for tomorrow.
Tik, Tik … Bum! opens in limited cinema release on November 12 and debuts on Netflix on November 19.