Fourth Estate / Billy Ferguson

‘Tick, Tick… BOOM!’


“So, you know, lately, I’ve been hearing this sound. Everywhere I go, like a tick, tick, tick … Like a time bomb … The fuse has been lit. The clock counts down the seconds as the flame gets closer, and closer, and closer, until … all at once … [boom].”

“Tick, Tick… BOOM!” opens on a shot of Andrew Garfield as Johnathan Larson, performing the beginning of the autobiographical rock monologue that would later become the show we are now watching. 

The video is grainy and poorly lit, the camera bounces around, and Garfield himself approaches the mic wearing a simple white shirt tucked into his jeans, recalling the video recordings we have of Larson’s show, originally performed in 1991.

Garfield’s performance as Larson is impressive, but he can’t capture some things about Larson’s performance — how he sits, chest slightly protruded, shoulders sloped, or how his long fingers seem to stretch impossibly to reach the piano keys — unknown to everyone in the room, including the man himself, Larson likely has Marfan Syndrome.

The repertoire of celebrities with Marfan Syndrome is slim: The disorder is rare, occurring in only about one in 5,000 births, and it’s notoriously underdiagnosed. Marfan Syndrome affects the body’s connective tissues, causing distinct characteristics such as long arms, legs and fingers, scoliosis, and unusual facial features. Marfan Syndrome also causes heart problems, which, if undiagnosed, are often fatal.

We are told of Larson’s untimely death at the age of 36 early in the opening scenes of the film, and we are haunted by that knowledge as the plot unfolds. The show Larson has created is one about time, and the anxiety that comes with not having enough of it. Larson is about to turn 30, and is distressed that his career as a musical theatre writer has yet to take off.

The people surrounding Larson are quick to assure him that he has plenty of time left, but as his friends die one by one of a mysterious illness that seems to be ravaging the gay community, Larson fears his own end may come at any time.

Larson died of an aortic dissection, a common complication of Marfan Syndrome. He went to the hospital with chest pains days earlier, but heart imaging was not performed, despite Larson presenting with Marfan Syndrome characteristics. 

Larson’s death was preventable: Mason includes diagnostic guidelines on all club sports signup forms, and more information can be found on the Marfan Foundation website.

“Rent,” of course, is Jonathan Larson’s better-known show, and fans will recognize the seeds of some of the themes his later work would explore in “Tick, Tick… BOOM!” The rock soundtrack flows effortlessly between triumph and heartbreak, and the cast performs well in their roles, although the performances are mostly not particularly memorable. 

A half-dozen well-known Broadway figures make cameos (the pandemic, it seems, has freed up many schedules). Though the film was produced by Netflix, it is well worth the movie ticket to see on the big screen.