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"They're singing 'Happy Birthday',
you just want to lay down and cry,
not just another birthday,
It's 30/90,
Why can't you stay 29,
Hell, you still feel like you're 22,
Turn thirty, 1990,
Bang! You're dead,
What can you do?
What can you do?
What can you do?"
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tick, tick... BOOM! is a 2021 film directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (in his directorial debut) and written by Steven Levenson. It is based off the musical of the same name by Jonathan Larson, and stars Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Mj Rodriguez and Bradley Whitford.

It follows Larson's struggles: workshopping his passion project of a musical, Superbia, balancing his ambitions with real life and his relationship with his girlfriend Susan, and the stress of feeling like he's composing on borrowed time and needing to make something of himself by a certain deadline.

The film was released on Netflix on November 19, 2021.


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This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: During the "Sunday" scene:
    • Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo appear with matching headbands and tops in the same colors as their Hamilton characters, and hold their hands up to recreate the Hamilton poster with the silhouetted Schuyler sisters.
    • Bebe Neuwirth's black dress evokes costumes for Chicago; she's played various roles throughout the years.
    • André De Shields has a pink carnation pinned to his suit. He originated the role of Hermes in Hadestown, and carnations are given out at Hadestown stagedoors.
    • Chita Rivera raises a glass a la "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company.
    • Beth Malone wears her costume from Fun Home.
    • Bernadette Peters appears near the end of the number in an outfit and pose meant to invoke her performance as Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, which the song was meant to reference and Jon is shown watching on TV a scene earlier.
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    • Daphne Rubin-Vega wears both her original shoes from Rent and a hoodie worn and gifted to her by Jonathan Larson himself.
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • The film's "Jon" is explicitly identified as Jonathan Larson, and more elements of his biography are included in the story. It also expands from the minimalist 3 person cast of the play to a full cast of characters (perhaps inevitable being a movie).
    • Carolyn, a new character for the film, actually originates from a very brief reference from a draft of Tick, Tick...Boom! where Jonathan mentions Susan's green dress was a commission made by one of his fellow waiters at the diner, Carolyn. Levenson and Miranda used this stray reference, cut from later drafts, to create an entirely new character.
  • Adaptation Relationship Overhaul: The subplot of Susan being envious of Karessa's relationship with Jon is cut; the two women instead duet (metaphorically) "Come to Your Senses" as a Jerkass Realization for Jon.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Jon is as close to Michael as he is to Susan. His roommates tease that he's been crying in the fridge every day since Michael decided to move out. Their song "No More" has the refrain "I could get used to you" as they dance around Michael's new apartment, complete with running along the walls. He keeps praising Michael's acting abilities when talking about his friend, while Michael is more modest and says that Jon is the real talent. Michael in turn begs Jon to come with him to the apartment, and take up a day job at his advertising firm because he can do this work and pay the rent while working on his musical masterpieces. What's more, while Susan breaking up with him breaks his heart and he later imagines her singing "Come to Your Senses", it's Michael telling Jon that he's HIV-positive that makes him have his Jerkass Realization, leading to a complete breakdown that ends with him actively making up with both of them.
  • An Aesop: There is a balance between writing like every project is a make-it-or-break-it, and taking care of your life. Jon sadly ends up being right that he's creating on borrowed time, as his heart will give out in five years owing to a misdiagnosis about an aortic rupture, but his attitude nearly drives his best friend and girlfriend away.
  • all lowercase letters: As with the musical, the "t" of the first "tick" in the title is not in caps.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The stage musical "tick tick...BOOM" didn't become a three person play until years after Larson's death. While he was alive, it was a one man play with one back up singer.
    • The film suggests that Jonathan Larson and Stephen Sondheim were only acquaintances up until the Superbia presentation. They had actually known each other for years before that, with Stephen acting as The Mentor long before Superbia. Jonathan in fact was invited to the rehearsals for the original Broadway run of Into the Woods (three years before the events in the movie).
    • Michael is based on Jonathan's real life friend Matt O'Grady. While they were childhood friends, they were never roommates and he had never been an actor.
    • The presentation in the film is shown as being a huge success, with Jon only receiving no offers because of lack of marketability. In actuality, Jonathan was disappointed because he was only able to get a simple piano accompaniment (rather than the band or synthesizer shown in the film), and Stephen Sondheim actually left after the first act. It also happened in 1988 as opposed to 1990.
    • It's implied Jon stopped working on Superbia at all after the failed presentation. He actually continued tweaking it in the subsequent years, at one point even developing a film adaptation. He had stopped working on it at the time of his death, but only because he was focusing on RENT.
    • Janet Charleston, Susan's real-life counterpart, didn't fully break up with Jonathan as the movie suggests. The two had an on-again-off-again relationship (and that heavily influenced the character's motivations in the original monologue of Tick, Tick...Boom!) - and were still together when he died. However, the choice to have Susan narrate and show her turning up to the performance suggests they could have gotten back together at that point.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Jon and Susan don't get back together, and Superbia, the show that Jon has worked the entire film towards, never gets off the ground. Susan also narrates that Jon died five years later and never got to see the previews of RENT, which would go on to have major mainstream success. However, Jon reconciles with both Susan and Michael, his future self performs Tick, Tick...Boom to implied acclaim, and he finally accepts turning 30.
  • Bookends:
    • The film opens and closes with book-ended documentary style clips of Jonathan, as well as a voiceover from Susan.
    • Jon and Susan's first scene involve a book of blank music pages that Jon wants to buy from the Strand, but Susan says costs money that Jon doesn't have to spend. Their final scene together has her give him the book for his birthday to write his next show in.
  • Bowdlerise: Due to the PG-13 rating:
    Michael: No more walking thirteen blocks with thirty pounds of laundry in the freezing dead of winter!
  • The Cameo: Many in the diner during "Sunday", including Bernadette Peters and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself.
  • Camp Gay: Michael downplays this, as his fashion sense isn't particularly camp and his mannerisms are only mildly flamboyant. He does however get a rather camp number "No More".
  • Career-Ending Injury: Downplayed. Susan fractured her foot previously, putting a stop to her dancing career. She is however hoping to take a new job that will allow her to get back into shape.
  • Career Versus Man: Susan is torn between taking a more flexible job outside the city or staying there to be near Jon. She wants him to go with her, but that's unlikely to happen, and she is actually annoyed that he's not begging her to stay. Susan at least wants to talk it the benefits and cons with Jon, but he keeps shutting her out, till she hits a Rage Breaking Point at three in the morning. On realizing that Jon doesn't love her enough to fight for her and is using their relationship drama for a song, Susan walks out on him in a rage, accepts the job in the Berkshires, and refuses to come to the workshop. They do patch things up at the end, but it's not confirmed if they get back together or have an on-off relationship.
  • Casting Gag: A movie about the creator of RENT, featuring Vanessa Hudgens in a supporting role. Hudgens has played Rent characters Mimi and Maureen at different points. Original Broadway Rent alumni Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia also cameo.
  • Contrast Montage: In "Therapy", we see the actual song being performed in 1992 during Larson's production of his show "tick tick...BOOM", and it's very hammily and comically performed. At the same time, we see an argument between Jonathan and Susan that is much more serious, and by the end of the scene, we see that this argument is what inspired the song being sung, but it's also the last straw for Susan as she realizes he is composing something while hugging her and trying to convince her not to leave him, causing her to break up with him.
  • Cool Old Guy: Stephen Sondheim is one of the most acclaimed theater composers of all time. As you'd expect, he's smart as a whip, but he's also a super Nice Guy who supports upcoming, struggling artists like Jonathan, giving him both high praise and necessary advice to really make his piece as good as it can be. Applies to the real guy too, as without even being prompted, he offered to lend his voice for the character's heartwarming voicemail to Jonathan.
  • Cry Laughing: Jon reflecting on his memories with Michael during "Why".
  • Cruel to Be Kind: When Jon has Heroic BSoD and begs Michael to give him a second chance in advertising, Michael hears him out as Jon has a breakdown that the show had a great workshop but no investors. He then says no. Why? Because, aside from the fact that Jon burned bridges with the focus group, he knows that Jon is going to make great works and that giving up means that he won't be living the life he wants. Also Michael has been dealing with his own problems, like getting tested positive for HIV.
  • Decomposite Character: In a sense. Karessa and Susan are separate characters in the stage version, but are played by the same actress. "Come To Your Senses" is thus a solo. Because different actresses play them in the film, the song becomes a Distant Duet; where Karessa is the one physically performing it, but Jonathan imagines Susan singing.
  • Double Standard: This is one of the reasons why Michael decides to go into advertising rather than persist with acting. He says that as a Hispanic man, casting directors look down on him and call him the wrong name, giving him only a minute to read his lines before they boot him out the door. Jon is Jewish but white, and has a supportive community behind him considering Stephen Sondheim is one of his mentors. Michael even points out that Jon takes his opportunities for granted because people see him the way he wants them to see: as a budding musical genius.
  • Foregone Conclusion:
    • Jon expects that Superbia will be his breakout hit and he will be a success like Sondheim. Viewers know that Rent is actually going to be that hit, five years later.
    • Jon talks about how he wants to have his success and feels like he's running out of time. He ends up being right, dying when he's 35.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: Michael gets a giant loft in the Upper East Side on a starting salary as an advertising and marketing executive. It's large enough for him and Jon to waltz around, with a great view of the city. He actually asks Jon to get a job with the same firm to move in with him there, reasoning that Jon can get paid for doing what he loves and work on his musicals at the same time.
  • Gut Punch: The scene where Michael reveals quietly that he contracted HIV. In fact, it's when Jon is prepared to hang up his composing dreams and go into advertising. Michael tells him angrily that he has to continue because he is going to live and have a long life, something that Michael won't have. No, don't pity Michael, but don't give up either.
  • Innocently Insensitive:
    • Roger's friend Scott clearly knows very little about music or theater and manages to piss Jonathan off in about 10 seconds of them meeting (by mentioning he only sang in highschool to get girls and wanted to come to this party because "artist parties have the best drugs"), but otherwise seems to be a nice guy and is completely oblivious about Jonathan's annoyance and is quickly impressed by "Boho Days", the small improv number Jonathan does off the cuff. And he's later seen in the audience of the "present day" show clearly enjoying himself.
    • Jonathan is critical of Michael giving up performing for a high-paying advertising job, but legitimately did not consider that he has less chance of making it as an actor because of his race and sexuality. Likewise, Jonathan would be under less rejection as a writer rather than an actor.
    • Jonathan neglects a whole bunch of things such as Michael's news, Susan's job opportunity and many others - because he's literally so stressed from having to get his musical ready in time for the presentation that he can't focus on anything else until it's over.
  • Irony: Jon starts ranting that he's running out of time, and Michael retorts that he's got more time than himself, as he's HIV positive. He weakly says he might get lucky, while emphasizing that Jon has better chances than him. Jonathan dies only five years after this conversation, while Michael's real-life counterpart did in fact get lucky to not contract AIDS and is still alive as of 2021.
  • Jerkass Realization: Jonathan has one of these towards the end of the film. He has obsessed over the workshop so much that he neglected nearly every personal relationship in his life. It's only when Michael reveals he is HIV-positive that he looks back on the events of the past week, including his girlfriend breaking up with him, and realizes, "I've been a massive jerk."
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Jon isn't the nicest guy throughout the film, treating his loved ones and associates rather poorly in the week leading up to the Superbia workshop, but he clearly does care about them, and he realizes what a jerk he's been to them towards the end, particularly with the reveal that Michael has HIV and has been trying to tell him for the past few days, with Jon too concerned with his own problems to give Michael any room to bring up his own.
  • Madness Mantra: "Real Life" is just Michael singing "Is this real life?" over and over after he reveals his HIV-positive status to Jon.
  • Maybe Ever After: The movie is unclear about if Jon and Susan get back together. She decides to take the job in the Berkshires but gives him blank sheet music as a birthday present and shows up to see the Tick, Tick Boom monologue where he admits that he wronged her. They could have easily had a long-distance relationship.note .
  • Musical World Hypothesis: A mix. The story itself is Jonathan Larson reflecting on his life and creative struggles through the in-universe production of Tick, Tick...Boom!".
    • Most of the songs in the in-universe version of Tick, Tick...Boom! are a mix of Adaptation (in the sense that Jonathan wrote them about his life) and Diegetic (since they are performed live by Jonathan, Karessa, and Roger). An example is "Therapy", sung by Jonathan and Karessa in 1992, which is intercut with the 1990 argument with Susan that the song is based on.
    • Others are solely Diegetic, such as "Boho Days" (an improv number in Jonathan's apartment) and "Green Green Dress" (which plays on the radio).
    • "Come To Your Senses" introduces some "All In Their Heads". The song is being performed by Karessa in-universe, but Jonathan imagines Susan singing it, so the audience gets a Distant Duet between the two.
  • Mythology Gag:
    • The cut song "Green, Green, Dress" plays on the radio in the scene where Susan wears it; it otherwise doesn't appear in the film aside from the end credits. The scene is set up that you expect them to sing and dance on the roof – indeed, that's what happens in the show and was supposed to happen before the scene was killed in the editing process – only to Smash Cut to them making out.
    • Jon's answering machine says "SPEAK" just like Mark and Roger's in Rent.
    • While Jon is trying to write a song before Susan comes over, he plays the opening notes to "One Song Glory" from Rent on his keyboard.
    • "Sugar", another cut song, is reduced to being jokingly sung at one point for those who are aware of its context in the original show.
    • Jon passes the Cat Scratch Club before the beginning of "Play Game", which is where Mimi dances for work in Rent.
    • After the focus group's initial brainstorming run, "Santa Fe" (the name of a song from Rent) is visible on the whiteboard.
    • Jon calls Michael "pookie", which shows up in Rent as an endearment Maureen uses for her lovers when she wants something.
  • Nested Story: The movie alternates between Jonathan Larson performing his show "tick tick BOOM" and the actual events the play tells as they occurred 2 years earlier. Some of the songs from the show are done in the 1992 show while some of them occur in "real life" in 1990. And in some cases we see the play's version of the events and the "real" events occurring side by side, such as with "Therapy" where the song from the show is seen in 1992 while we see the actual argument that inspired it with no music in 1990.
  • Opinion Flip Flop: Walter Bloom, head of the theater workshop, changes his opinions according to whatever Stephen Sondheim says.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation:
    • The play is most commonly done as a three-man show, with the actors playing Michael and Susan doubling for the other characters. The film handles this by casting a separate actor for each character — Roger and Karessa perform the three-man stage show along with Jonathan in 1992, while we see the past events that led up to the show in 1990.
    • "Come to Your Senses" becomes a Distant Duet between Karessa and Susan (the same actress plays both parts in the show), allowing Vanessa Hudgens a chance to show off with a solo, while still keeping the original song's power. It in fact adds something more to this being the only time Susan sings in the film - entirely in Jonathan's imagination - to better convey the rift between them.
  • Race Lift:
    • Roger is meant to be a stand-in for Roger Bart, who is white. In the film, Roger is black.
    • In-universe. Susan in real life is of course black, but Karessa plays her in the show. Vanessa Hudgens is mixed Irish, Filipino, French and Native American.
    • Out of universe, in an example going all the way back to Jonathan's demo tape, the song "Swimming" describes Susan as a white woman. The film's version of the song changes the lyric "white skin and red hair" to "brown skin and wet hair" (since he's looking at a woman who reminds him of Susan getting out of the pool) to match the actress.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Michael gives Jonathan one of these when Jonathan claims Michael sold out by going into advertising. Michael angrily points out Jonathan has the privilege to follow his passion, have a life with the person he loves, and eventually have a family, all things that Michael can't do as a gay man living in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. Doubles as Foreshadowing when Michael later reveals he is, in fact, HIV-positive.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
  • Ira Weitzman, the theater manager that agrees to host a workshop on Superbia. He nudges Jon to write a song for his leading lady Elizabeth, knowing that it will elevate the show, and refuses to fund a band on the grounds that there aren't many RSV Ps and he doesn't want there to be more performers than audience members. When Jon gets the money for a synthesizer and player, Ira admits that the accompaniment makes the songs sound better. It's implied he knows that Superbia is a longshot of investment and wants to instead get Jon's name out into the theater world by hosting the show. Before the workshop, he hugs Jon to wish him luck and gives a winning Smile of Approval when Caressa sings the showstopper that Ira requested.
    • Rosa, Jon's agent. She fields his multiple phone calls with patience. When his first show isn't the success he desires, she says that This Is Reality and the best thing to do is put on a new show.
    • Steve Sondheim is a Living Legend who still takes the time to help up and coming composers by reviewing their work. Noticeable in that his cohort offers mean spirited, nitpicking jabs towards Jonathan's work while Sondheim gives a kind, spot-on assessment while still noting where the piece needs to be improved.
  • Rose-Haired Sweetie: Jon's friend and coworker Carolyn has dyed pink hair.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Sunday" is a recreation of the act 1 finale of Sunday in the Park with George (though at a crappy diner rather than a nice park in France). On top of that, it is absolutely loaded with cameos and Broadway talent. Besides a myriad of Actor Allusions, Chita Rivera sits with a glass similar to Joanne from Company during "The Ladies Who Lunch".
    • In "Why" Jonathan recalls a high school production of West Side Story.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: Conflict in the story comes between Jonathan - who's a waiter in an unpleasant apartment trying to pursue his dream career as a musical theatre writer - and Michael, who's given up on showbiz for a high-paying job in advertising and is now living in a fancy apartment. However, the story doesn't villainize Michael for his decision, especially when its revealed he has HIV and doesn't want to spend what's left of his life as a starving artist.
  • Smash Cut: Jonathan seeing Susan's green dress in the musical leads into them dancing on the roof and singing "Green, Green Dress." In the movie, though, right when you expect just that to happen, it immediately cuts to them making out while an R&B version of the song plays on the radio in the background.
  • Society Marches On: In the play, after fighting over Michael's decision to go into advertising and leave theater behind, later on Michael tells Jonathan when he's at his lowest that though Michael enjoys the monetary perks his job brings, Michael says that finds it horribly unfulfilling and dull as a reason for Jon to continue writing rather getting a job at his firm. This was in line with Larson's other musical Theatre/Rent with the idea that getting a corporate job was "selling out". Over a decade later with a job market that is much harsher, the movie cuts this aspect and just has Michael focus on convincing Jon that he's talented enough that he'll hit it big sooner or later even if not right now.
  • Symbolic Serene Submersion: Faced with an incredibly near deadline for his new song, Jonathan goes swimming, and as he approaches the 30-meter mark during a lapnote  the scene slows for a moment with him staring at the number. The moment then turns into a frenetic "Eureka!" Moment where he overcomes his writer's block, but the scene ends with another shot of him floating in the pool.
  • Take That!: A slew of posters in the background of "Play Game" makes humorous digs.
  • This Is Reality: As Rosa points out when being forced to reveal that not one investor wanted Superbia and instead asked what Jon's next work would be, she says that she warned Jon that people don't want to see science fiction on Broadway (yet). His music is great, but a niche topic that has a huge cast and a high budget for special effects has too many risks for even an angel investor to consider. And even if Jon had sold this work, he would still have to work on the next one, and the next one, and the next.
  • Tragic AIDS Story: The specter of AIDS hangs over the film even more than it does in the show; Jonathan mentions how a lot of his friends have already died of AIDS and the HIV-positive Freddy's health takes a nosedive midway through the film. And as in the show it's Michael's HIV diagnosis that triggers his Jerkass Realization.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Jon has a much higher opinion of Michael's acting skills than even Michael himself has. During the opening he says that Michael got all the leads in all the plays during high school and college, yet later we later learn that during their high school performance of West Side Story, Michael was cast as Doc, a minor role that doesn't even sing. It may have stemmed from denial and possibly a sense of betrayal over Michael's decision to leave acting behind for an advertising firm.
  • Verbal Backspace: In "Boho Days", Jonathan first lists a former roommate called Tim. But then he corrects himself that Tim was "just a guest from June til January".
  • Wham Line:
    • After the workshop, Jon talks with Rosa over the phone. She says it was a big success, and her phone has been ringing off the hook. She reveals, however, that all the investors said they wanted to see his next work, rather than take a chance on Superbia. He has to write the next play to try again.
    • When Jon is having his breakdown in Michael's office, Micahel stops him cold: "I'm HIV-positive." Even worse, it turns out he knew for a few days and wanted to talk with Jon about it, but all Jon could think about was the workshop.

 
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"No More!"

In this song number, Michael is excited to be moving out of the horrible, cramped apartment he shared with Jon to a more spacious and luxurious place.

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