There’s timing, and then there’s timing. There’s striking while the iron is hot, and there’s throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Opportunity vs. cashing in (creatively), and where tick, tick… Boom! is concerned, I’m not sure which is which. At least not based on the trailer which dropped yesterday.
This is the easy part – dropping it in perfect conjunction with the release of Jon M. Chu-directed, Lin-Manuel Miranda-penned In The Heights is a no brainer; perfect ‘convergence’, as media professors would say.
It’s LMM’s directorial debut, a hybrid of biography and autobiography of Jonathan Larson – Larson wrote the show about himself, essentially, circa 1990 – about the ticking clock of making/finishing/finding an artistic accomplishment, presumably before his death in 1996, on the morning of the first off-Broadway preview of RENT. (The show wasn’t mounted until after Larson’s death, first in 2001 and later revived in 2014/2016.) That’s a theme that will feel familiar to RENT fans – the idea of ‘one…glory/before I go’ runs loudly through RENT, largely because the characters are living with the dangling Sword of Damocles that was HIV/AIDS in the 1990s. If you were born after, say, 1994 or so, welcome, and sorry for the lecture, but it’s hard to overstate how big a threat HIV/AIDS was – not only was it an epidemic in the incredibly vulnerable *and* incredibly persecuted gay community, it was positioned as an epidemic that would come for any of us who were considering having sex at any point in our lifetimes.
I know that’s hard to understand for younger people. I’m glad for that, but I wonder how the movie, which is clearly a period piece, will play as a result. First of all, it’s a persistent (and understandable) myth that Jonathan Larson died of AIDS; in fact he had an undiagnosed aortic issue related to Marfan’s disease and as far as we know was not HIV-positive. Obviously I’m sure the film will clear that up, but the hospital imagery in the trailer certainly doesn’t do anything to clear up the misconception, and I wonder how audiences will react.
Secondly though, and more pressingly, I am curious about the film’s, and the show’s, take on work.
The idea of ‘Bohemia’, which comes up instantly and joyfully in the tick, tick….Boom! trailer, also runs large through RENT – and, even including the overarching narrative of living amid fears of HIV, it’s the most 90s part about the whole thing. There was an idea, back then, that being an artist and getting to do what you love also meant rejecting the trappings of middle class life, his idea that poverty was a privilege, that authenticity would always trump comfort, and that anything you did in the name of pursuing your artistic dreams was justified, exciting … and ultimately, the only way to truly ‘win’ at creative success.
There is no concept that has been more firmly or effectively debunked by Millennials as a complete and total myth. Whether you are Gen X or a Xennial or the offensive term recently popularized to describe those born before 1985, this was a fairy tale that we were sold and bought into wholesale, and though the narrative of ‘darn kids don’t want to work hard’ was a last gasp attempt to keep that myth alive, the kids know the truth: self-imposed poverty, especially in pursuit of ‘a job everyone would kill for’ isn’t sexy, it isn’t a guarantee of anything, and it doesn’t pay off, in 99% of cases. Larson didn’t live long enough to wrestle with that conflict in his work, but I’m very curious about how that narrative will play in a film for audiences in 2021, many of whom were teenagers ‘formed’ by Hamilton the same way we were by RENT.
Will the current 90s nostalgia, which I can’t believe is already here, but is obvious in the styling of every new-ish musical artist and is creeping into Gen-Z fashion on TikTok, be enough to take people back to this time and the now-naïve ideals? Or are we only meant to view it as ‘look at the charming idealism of the early 90s’ with affection and pathos and wiser eyes? In what I cannot believe is a controversial opinion, I find Andrew Garfield incredibly charismatic, and if anyone can sell the idea that everything rests on an artistic dream, it’s him – but I still wonder whether tick, tick…BOOM! is supposed to be consumed as a love letter to ‘bohemia’ gone by, or as a cautionary tale.