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Often, we feel like so much of our lives depends on successes and failures – where we work, where we live, how much money we have and so on. It is easy to forget to stay true to what really matters to us the most – and nothing is more of a champion of this than the 2021 film ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’
Based on the musical of the same name by Jonathan Larson, the plot itself is somewhat meta, and the only musical of its kind that I have seen. The plot of ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ as a musical and a film is actually the story of Larson writing the musical he wrote before ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ It isn’t acted out with props and scenery but instead takes place with Jonathan and a piano, accompanied by a few other musicians and singers, delivered as if some sort of speech; only intertwined by Larson’s brilliant songs.
I could spend a long time talking about the performances of the actors - and Andrew Garfield is brilliant in this - but for me the standout thing was more the message. The main thing I love about the musical is that it is so honest – there is no glamourisation of what is happening and we are just presented with the raw and emotional truths. I have often written in the past about how being in your twenties is supposed to be fun but is actually filled with pressure and angst and no other story I have seen portrays it better than this one. In spite of failing relationships and a lack of money, Larson is clinging on to his dream with every last fibre of his being, determined to make it as a writer. During this time he has seen his group of talented and creative friends give up on their hopes, opting for stable jobs to try and save up some money having become frustrated with a life of small apartments and living week to week. The most prominent two are Larson’s long time actor friend, Michael, and dancer girlfriend, Susan, who choose to take a corporate advertising job and a teaching job respectively.
Amongst this, Jonathan finds himself weighing up his own motives. The film is laced with Jonathan’s repeated mantra that others had already hit huge success by the time that they were his age, and as the days pass by to his 30th birthday he feels as if it may be all too late. Whilst seeing people his age buy homes, get married and have kids we see Jonathan begin to question whether maybe it is time to pull the plug, and he comes close, even attending a focus group at his friend's advertising company.
The title; ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ is the perfect commentary on Jonathan’s position in more ways than one. The first of which is his 30th birthday. Having constantly reminded himself of people who are successful in their twenties it seems that this day on the horizon is almost a deadline for Larson, a finishing point decided in his head whereby if he wasn’t successful then he never would be. The second is the writing of the final song. The musical Larson is working on is the labour of nearly a decade and is one song from being completed. Having agreed to do a presentation of the finished project Larson has little time to complete this song. Despite this, he finds himself in a block of sorts and as the presentation gets closer and closer and he is still unable to write, the pressure mounting in his head becomes destructive as he lets relationships fall by the wayside in desperate search of inspiration. The third is really the overview of the whole story - the ticks of inspiration before the explosion. This can apply to a couple of parts of the musical – for example, Jonathan’s desperate search for the final song before it suddenly hits him during a swimming session he took to calm down; or perhaps the wider view of the plot overall. The ticks representing the impending doom whilst Jonathan slaves away at his musical, before the boom signals the ultimate failure of his project, despite its appreciation by the audience at the presentation. Of course, Larson does go on to be a success (hence this musical) but just focusing on the arc of this particular project, the title fits perfectly.
Although a very different situation, I found myself throughout the whole film relating to Jonathan and his dilemmas. After all, it would be easy for him to quit and pursue a boring corporate life, get himself a nice apartment and live sensibly ever after, but this isn’t what he loves. His passion is writing musicals and despite the pain, poverty and heartbreak it seems to bring him, he just can’t bring himself to let it slip. Knowing who Larson is I knew he would write more plays, but even so, the musical still had me doubting. After the failure of his first project, I really found myself believing he may just quit, even though I know it not to be reality.
Aside from the sensational music, I think that’s what I loved so much about this musical and film. It isn’t costumes, sets, make-up and high drama. It’s just honesty. A situation that is quite unique, but a feeling that many of us have been through or will go through. The persisting dilemma between passion and predictability, love and labour. The pressure of seeing people younger than yourself succeed, feeling like time is running out when really it isn’t. Of course, the real tragedy of this musical is that for Jonathan and his friend it was. Having tragically passed before ever getting to see the opening night of his huge success, and the musical after this one, ‘Rent’, I found myself wondering at the end. Jonathan never got to see his own victory, live in the glory or finally be able to live comfortably from the fruits of his labour; but if he were able to live his short 35 years the same way again – pursuing his dream and devoting himself to his passion – I’d say that he probably would. Michael presents another side to the story; a talented actor who spent his best years working in a corporate job he didn’t like to make ends meet. Neither is better or worse than the other, and some people’s dream is to be in a corporate environment, but the fact that it was clear that this was not the case for Michael is what makes it more tragic. With this in mind, and with the start of yet another new year, maybe our resolutions should be to chase that goal, pursue that dream or take a few more risks. We all have different dreams but it’s important for all of us that we give them a chance.
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