While Rent is an international musical phenomenon, Lin-Manuel Miranda has now brought us the story many people didn’t know about the musical’s creator, Jonathan Larson — played by Andrew Garfield in Tick, Tick...BOOM! (now on Netflix).
“It's a love letter to creativity and what your relationship with creativity is,” the movie’s star Robin de Jesús, who previously worked with Miranda on the original 2008 Broadway production of In The Heights, told Yahoo Canada. “What you do to navigate your passions and how you negotiate with them, and figure out what's healthy and what's sustainable for you.”
As de Jesús explains, Larson and his work gave him and Miranda “permission to go into the business,” revolutionizing theatre by pushing the boundaries of the music you can hear, the people you see on stage and the stories you can tell, similar to much of the praise that Miranda received for the style of Hamilton and In The Heights.
Tick, Tick...BOOM! is named after Larson’s one-man “rock monologue.” The movie tells the story of Jon (Garfield) in the 1990s, waiting tables at a New York City diner by day while he works on creating the “next great American musical.” Coming up on his 30th birthday, Jon is trying to navigate his adult responsibilities with the pursuit of his creative desires, including getting pressure from his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Michael (de Jesús), who recently transitioned into a corporate advertising career.
This is all occurring during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which amplifies the stress that Jon feels to accomplish his goals before time runs out.
'We rarely get to see full bodied characters of colour experiencing the HIV and AIDS epidemic'
De Jesús's favourite thing about the movie is the relationship between Jon and Michael.
“I very rarely, if ever, have seen a movie that centres a relationship between a straight man and a gay man,” he explained. “The fact that I could grab Andrew’s face and console him but it has nothing to do with romance, it's just friendship and brotherly love, it's so cool and I'm happy that we get to model that.”
As we all get to see Tick, Tick...BOOM! during the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie also shines a light on “repeating mistakes” from the past.
“One of the reasons that I'm happy to be in this movie is because we rarely get to see full bodied characters of colour experiencing the HIV and AIDS epidemic, because we focus it so much on white gay men,” de Jesús said.
“That's great, everyone deserves their moment, but there is no doubt at all in my mind that Black and brown queer folks, and many Black and brown women, experienced AIDS in an arguably more intense way because systemically there were more odds stacked against us.”
De Jesús added that he hopes there is a “conscious call out” to the public to not repeat these mistakes.
“Now, with the pandemic, the same thing happened, there were certain demographics that were left to be more vulnerable and that didn't feel like anyone had their back,” he said.
'Everyone wants to be seen'
At the age of 35, Larson passed away suddenly from an aortic aneurysm linked to undiagnosed Marfan Syndrome, the night before the first preview of Rent, so he never actually got to see the success he finally achieved with this particular piece of work.
Tick, Tick...BOOM! is a sweet, funny, emotional and electrifying movie about Larson’s life, not his death, but there was still a sense of responsibility for de Jesús, and the rest of the cast and crew, to honour him and the people who were in his life.
“Everyone wants to be seen and I'm sure the people that are in this movie, they want to be seen in a way that really documents and honours Jonathan's life appropriately,” he explained. “So there is a responsibility, but there's that thing that can happen when your ego gets involved and you're just like, I've got to make sure that I honour everything perfectly.”
“You have to sort of figure out the dance… What always helped me was the awareness of the collective, the awareness of, who are we doing this movie for? Who are we honouring? Instead of seeing it as, ‘we’ve got to do it,’ it's like, ‘I get to honour these communities.’”
Larson exemplifies being 'a good white ally'
This is the first time we’ve heard Garfield sing in a movie, he actually learned how to just for this impressive role, aligning with de Jesús' description that Garfield approached this character with “courage.”
“That courage, that bravery from someone who has been doing this thing at a certain echelon for a while, it gives permission to the rest of us to be like ‘I'm leaping too,’” de Jesús explained.
In terms of why it’s important to tell the story of Larson, de Jesús says an overarching message is that Larson exemplifies being “a good white ally.”
“He gave work to so many people of colour, he wrote characters of colour that are full bodied, that had layers, that got to be messy, and got to be messy in a way that didn't imply that they were not deserving of sympathy, empathy, compassion,” he explained. “There was great dignity to them, even within the messiness in the struggle.”
“It wasn't poverty porn and I think Jonathan did that better than a lot of people are doing it now and so, that's really the thing that sticks out most for me.”