Next Story

Tick, tick…BOOM!: It is later than you think

Jonathan Larson gave a generation a voice during the HIV epidemic and still reels in fans from all around the world

By Khizer Asif |
facebook whatsup linkded
PUBLISHED March 20, 2022

It can’t be helped to be carried away with the rush of the theatrics in the film, with the passionate performance by Andrew Garfield playing Jonathan Larson, the person this film is tributed to. This adaption of one of Larson's plays depicts an artist suffering from his work and unable to balance the work from his personal life. Larson is struggling to devise that all-elusive song for his 8-year-old working progress play, and (tunnel-visioned) Larson cannot see the large shadow cast by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the USA. While losing close friends, who were still in their 20s, Larson becomes too absorbed in making his first play that big break, all before turning 30.

Fear or love

From friends and his girlfriend, all of them knew how obsessed Larson was over his play Superbia, and they would joke with Larson by pretending to forget about the "workshop" that was coming up that Larson would constantly remind. The play was a futurist fantasy that was too challenging for some viewers to understand the story's premise—yet this doesn't deter Larson. Larson's determination to complete his play was due to his encounter with Stephen Sondheim, and while one critic had a polarising view of the play, Sondheim had almost nothing but praise for Larson's play. A comment that Sondheim said to Larson had struck a chord in the starstruck Larson's heart, which was, “First rate lyric and tune.” Larson describes that this phrase had motivated him to continue writing his play for the next two years. From this, this boost in his ambition grew a new kind of fear in Larson, mostly the fear of failure and inability to match up to his heroes in theatre.

This fear consumes Larson, where the stress alone leads him to alienate his friends and loved-one. In the scene of his girlfriend, Susan visits Larson to discuss the idea of her moving away to pursue a practical job, other than pursuing interpretive dance. She finds Larson in a trash riddled apartment filled with dirty dishes, empty bottles and the obvious look on Larson that creating that song was draining him. The song embodies all of Larson's fears. His fear of dying before showing the world his creativity. His fear of turning 30, passing the age where most famous playwrights have already had their break. His fear of not living up to Sondheim's praise had given him. The fear of not living up to expectations after all the constant reminders of his workshop. Larson's dream was at a crossroad, and he knew that if he didn't get this song done (called Elizabeth's Song), all of his work would be for nothing. The inclusion of this song became the most important song of his entire play and considering that he has been working on this one play for 8 years, this song became the most important song in his entire career. This sense of urgency of time running out is something Larson admits himself, describing as the namesake of the film and his play, that things are gradually passing by and eventually there will be a great BOOM!

The dream that Larson is building has strung him in a dilemma where he has a choice between continuing his career with all its uncertainty or choosing the more certain route—a boring yet well-paying job, 401k and a chance to build a family. Larson has to keep battling with the hardship of living under his despondent lifestyle, serving a dead-end job at the diner and clinging on the hope for success. As his shifty agent puts it, "You just keep throwing them against the wall hoping against hope that eventually, something sticks." That is the artist dilemma that Larson is facing at the moment, where he keeps burning himself out till people take notice of his genius before his career is destroyed without it taking off. The theme of striving for what you love, but for Larson, he is just beginning to understand what matters to him—the kind of love he was looking. However, his attention remained on making his play the best, which has strained his relationship with his best friend and his girlfriend where he had them fight for his attention and in both relationships, he realised their cries for help a little too late.


Why do we play with fire?

Larson hopes that this seemingly never-ending chase for his dream will come to a satisfactory end, yet the movie shows what he loses along this path. The idea of playing with fire is and fear or love is scribbled on his notepad, where he keeps small ideas to keep his creative mind going. The fire referred to in Larson's case is his need to push everyone's needs aside while also requiring them to focus on his problems. Michael, Larson's friend, had been trying to talk to Larson about something important, and throughout the film, you could see the uneasiness in how Michael talks to his friend. In the first quarter of the film, Larson is ranting about his girlfriend leaving and not knowing what to say. During this, Michael is trying to find to moment to talk about his issues. This inability to open up is shown with Michael's reaction to Larson asking about his relationship with his boyfriend. In a reserved manner, Michael responds, "It didn't work out." Nor did Larson give Michael the moment to talk on the phone, claiming that he was too caught up with his work on a single song, even though Larson had claimed that making songs took no time at all for him. Larson had also avoided talking to his girlfriend about whether she should take a well-job which would force her to move away.

This metaphorical fire that he seems to be playing with is the patience of those close to him, especially giving them an ear in their moment of need, and their patience is waning. After being told that his co-worker and friend was hospitalised from the effects of HIV/AIDS during work, Larson tries to convince himself that he should stay at work and not be concerned too much about his friend's hospitalisation.

Another side of this fire is the stress that Larson takes onto himself. Larson exhibits this through his reaction to disarm the conversation when it is about the completion of the song. He is also trying his best to ease the concerns of Ira Weitzman, the only person who had agreed to fund Larsons’s workshop of his musical. This avoidance also includes how Larson chooses to push aside his girlfriend’s pleas to talk about her job opportunity.

Both the dwindling patience of his loved ones and his avoidance of conflict are subsets of the larger issue of the attention Larson is receiving. After making the claims about working on his musical, which he worked on for nearly a decade, is finally coming to fruition Larson feels the pressure weighing on him. This leads him to push away questions that require his opinion, and it points to the question: How long will things remain the same after all this avoidance?



“I have rejection letters from every major and minor producer, theatre company, record label, and film studio in existence. And in just over a week…I will be 30 years old.” That statement alone shows the direction of Jonathan Larson’s mind regarding his main concerns. He believes that time dictates the quality of his work, and the more time it takes for his big break, the harder it'll be to sustain himself from living his somewhat impoverished lifestyle. Unfortunately, Larson dies due to an aneurysm at 35, and it happened on the first showing of his first major musical, Rent, that had Larson earn Pulitzer and Tony awards for it. The musical ran close to 15 years in theatres and is considered one of the most influential musicals in the world.

This all happened posthumously, Larson didn't come to realise the impact his work would have on people, and the theme of time becomes ever more prevalent considering his untimely death. Larson felt that his life was ticking and that he needed to expedite his plans, but through this, he realises that his situation is very fortunate and that people around him, close and afar, have it worse. When Larson was complaining to his friend Michael that after finally, his musical Superbia had its showing, but to Larson, it didn't hook any offers to produce his work. Larson feels exhausted after trying so hard to get to this point and wants to give it all up for a cushy job like his friend Michael. Michael and Larson have a back and forth argument about Larson not seeing the bigger picture of things. Larson says he can no longer wait anymore, and regardless of Michaels's attempts to give Larson hope, he is shut out. When Larson tells Michael has no idea about running out of time, Michael puts an end to Larson's triad of self-pity, saying, "I'm HIV-positive." Larson is caught speechless from this revelation and then realises that this was what Michael tried talking to him about but he was too self-absorbed in work to listen. Larson’s issue of time loses its pertinence, and he finds humility in this moment of the film. All that time running around worrying about his work, more like himself, he failed to realise the dilapidating world suffering from a disease. This scene did a great job in differentiating Michael’s depleting time and Larson’s; where Michael was something out of his control whereas Larson was self-imposed.

The film produced a character where you can feel anxieties and the racing in his mind. It feels like catharsis when coming to the end and seeing how he dies before receiving his well-earned glory. With characters that all deliver an exceptional performance and the musical numbers, tick, tick…BOOM!, served well in depicting the real Jonathan Larson. Andrew Garfield gave a performance that showed the humanisation of a person who is now considered part of the titans of Broadway theatre. It transformed Larson from a light-heart comedy to crashing him down into reality. The film director, Lin-Manuel Miranda, holds Jonathan Larson and his works close to his heart. Before his highly-acclaimed musical Hamilton, Miranda had watched Rent with his parents which was one of the biggest influences in him pursuing Broadway. Larson's Rent influenced a score of people in pursuing a career in theatre and has to this day a strong fan-base who can’t get enough of the only majorly-produced musical that Larson had created.