tick, tick…BLEW My Mind!
Recently I did something I typically don’t do; I watched a film that released exclusively on Netflix. My usual reasoning for skipping the vast majority of Netflix movie releases is laziness or apathy on my part but one caught my eye and was made a viewing priority. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM! is an adaptation of the Off-off-Broadway musical of the same name written by Jonathan Larson about an aspiring composer living in New York City in 1990 worrying that he made the wrong choice pursuing a career in performing arts. The musical was a semi-autobiographical work about his attempt to write a stage musical.
The film itself functions on multiple levels. One of them is an adaptation of the titular musical, another is a chronicle of the life of Jonathan Larson himself with some dramatic license taken and beyond that is a commentary on the struggles that come with a desire to be creative. Added in there is explorations of different kinds of grief, regret and all sorts of other powerful emotional states. It’s a tremendously layered and fascinating film. Instead of reviewing it in the traditional sense I decided to write this; a personal essay detailing what about this film spoke to me on a really primal level while analysing what it has to offer.
Playing Jonathan Larson is my favourite Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield and his performance is astounding. I know very little about the real Jonathan Larson and his personality but the performance Andrew Garfield delivers is excellent. He runs a gamut of complex emotions, imbues Larson with palpable manic energy, leads the film brilliantly and proves himself to be a very talented singer. His screen presence is magnetic and he easily shifts between the different layers of reality the film makes use of. His ability to play this role is important because the entirety of the narrative revolves around him with his thoughts and feelings being the driving force of what the film covers.
The film’s opening number, “30/90” immediately sets up some of the major themes. One of those is losing/wasting time. The song is about turning 30 and having nothing meaningful to show for it and not wanting to waste any more time. It’s perhaps overly dramatic to look at 30 as being an advanced age but culturally it’s a milestone often connected with the true passage into adulthood. Gone are your 20s where you work to find the person you are going to be and replacing it are your 30s where suddenly you’re supposed to have it all figured it and be on the path you want to be on.
Jonathan holds himself to a very high standard and is angry that he is no closer to achieving this dream when being days away from reaching this milestone. As the film begins he’s a waiter in a diner who has aspirations of writing an era defining musical. The prospect of turning 30 without being on the path he wants to be on is something that angers him and he lives in constant fear of time ticking away. Jonathan Larson tragically died at the age of 35 after suffering an aortic dissection. His lyrics take on extra meaning when considering how little time he really had left even if he had no way of knowing that at the time. Throughout the musical there is a persistent ticking that originally signified Jonathan’s anxiety with the ticking reducing as he gets closer to achieving his dream but with hindsight it can also be applied to the seconds of his remaining life ticking away. Every second is precious and none of them should be wasted. The closing number details a series of questions that remained unanswered for Jonathan before he passed. No matter how old we get we will never answer all of those questions!
Getting older and lacking a sense of accomplishment will be something many are all too familiar with. This film spoke to me on a deeply personal level because I share that mindset. Like many others I’m far from where I want to be in life and constantly question whether what I do has any value. My day job is unfulfilling and the very website housing this article isn’t the success I would like it to be so I’m dealing with an unrelenting existential crisis around how my time is being spent and if I’ve made some major mistakes along the way that has led me to this point.
As I write this I’m 34 years old so turning 30 is behind me but the point being made in this film -and the song- still resonates because according to the society I live in I am firmly considered an adult but I don’t feel like one. My 20s wasn’t that period of self discovery where I was moulded into the person I’m supposed to be. At no point did I graduate from the uncertainty of being in my 20s to the brimming adult confidence that comes with being 30 nor did I feel any more secure in my life choices than I did before. At the age of 34 I remain adrift, uncertain and terrified of my own future because I fear that the years will tick by with me always being unfulfilled. In short, I’m afraid that I’m wasting my life and Jonathan Larson’s tragic death at mere months older than I am now strongly conveys that you never know when your time is up.
In tick, tick…BOOM! Jonathan Larson quits his job at the diner in order to devote 100% of his time to his dream. It’s a significant risk because it leaves him without a stable income while chasing something that is unlikely to ever get him anywhere. In his case it eventually paid off -even if he would never enjoy the spoils of it- but for everyone who succeeds there are countless who don’t. Reasons for that vary wildly from lack of ability, lack of opportunity, lack of resources, lack of the proper contacts and many others. It’s often the case that someone has the ability to do the thing they want to do but is unable to achieve it because circumstances don’t allow it.
There’s the old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”; a statement I firmly believe in having witnessed people progress in their careers because they know the right person to put in a good word for them at a crucial point. That doesn’t devalue their success or their ability but it may not have happened without the relevant contact helping them. Jonathan Larson himself had input from Stephen Sondheim that helped propel him on his journey so his talent was supported by someone who had the power to help him progress. His talent isn’t devalued by that fact but there’s no denying that it’s good fortune for his work to be noticed by someone so influential. It should be noted that this isn’t a resource he had access to when first deciding to pursue his dream so the fact remains that he took a significant risk.
Jonathan’s decision got me thinking about my own ambitions and how I view myself. A line in the film is particularly biting in that regard. When working in the diner Jonathan says “You get to a certain age, and you stop being a writer who waits tables, and you become a waiter with a hobby.”. Jonathan’s view is that if he doesn’t take the chance and throw himself into achieving what he wants out of life then he will quickly transition to being a waiter who writes music in his spare time. What am I? Am I a writer and podcaster by trade or am I defined by my day job with this venture only being something that occupies a vast chunk of my free time? There’s no easy answer to that question and doing the soul searching required to truly answer it is a frightening prospect.
One thing that was admirable about Jonathan Larson is that he took the risk and threw himself into a dream that he eventually managed to achieve. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about quitting my day job and fully applying myself to writing and podcasting. I resist that urge because I’m afraid of taking such a risk knowing full well that the odds of it panning out the way I’d like it to are slim. This field is a saturated one with few opportunities to make money out of it so I could spend years chasing an unattainable goal. It’s not impossible but people far more talented than I am aren’t making a living out of it so I’m convinced that I’d never be able to either.
As much as it sounds appealing to adopt a “live for the moment” philosophy where I dedicate myself to this thing I’d rather be doing I am tempered by practical considerations such as paying my mortgage and feeding myself. To leave my day job would mean the loss of that stability and the draining of my savings in pursuit of something that realistically is never going to happen. Does that mean I’ve accepted that I’m a hobbyist? Maybe. Does that devalue what I do? I honestly don’t know because there will always be the lingering question of “What if I could be one of those who succeed?” but I’ll probably never know because I’m so afraid to take that risk.
Another thing worth considering as a point of comparison is that Jonathan Larson was remarkable. Much of his time was spent nurturing his creativity whether that was writing music, creating jingles for everyday objects, learning a musical instrument and whatever else he applied himself to. He was an immensely talented individual who was able to apply himself to a variety of creative outlets. He had the ambition but also had the talent to back it up and those things facilitated his eventual success. By comparison I’m not a remarkable person. I don’t consider myself to be especially good at anything nor do I have the confidence to take what little I can do and make something of it. That isn’t an appeal for sympathy or a desire to have the comments section filled with people declaring that I’m being too hard on myself. To me it’s a statement of fact and numbers among the main reasons I haven’t been as tenacious in my pursuit of turning this into more than a hobby than I otherwise could have been. It could be argued that I’m living in fear and I’d be unable to disagree with that argument.
Jonathan experiences his own crisis of confidence following the workshop showcasing SUPERBIA. It’s a success with Jonathan being heavily congratulated but soon comes the realisation that SUPERBIA would never be produced because it’s considered too arty and expensive for Broadway. Despite the audience being impressed it’s made clear that this is as far as this project will go. Jonathan’s view is that the workshop has been a failure because he was unable to sell the musical he threw so much of his time and energy into. This sends him down the path of comparing his own success -or lack thereof- to the success of those he looks up to. Doing so is always a painful path to walk because it puts the accomplishments of others on a pedestal while devaluing your own. It also comes with the erroneous assumption that there is a defined scale for success when there really isn’t. All things I can understand on an intellectual level but fail to truly accept on an emotional one.
His breakdown is devastating. After being told the only thing he can do is keep writing and hope that eventually something sticks causes him to doubt every creative decision he has ever made. It all comes out in a scene between Jonathan and Michael where Andrew Garfield unleashes Jonathan’s pain in a brutal display of raw uncontained emotion. Exhaustion is in every word he says as Jonathan demands to be given the well paid job, the financial security and everything else he held in contempt not so long ago. In this moment he’s tired of the chase and wants it to be over. The desire to give up when not achieving success is undoubtedly strong and this is magnified by Jonathan being so close to it only to have it slip through his fingers, at least from his point of view. Supplementing it is his belief that much of what is produced in his field is vacuous when he has something important to say that demands to be heard. Considering the success Rent would go on to achieve he was certainly driving at things people wanted to hear. This musical is proof of that for me personally.
It’s also notable that Jonathan’s dogged pursuit of his dream cost him a lot in his personal life. In the film his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) leaves him because his obsession with achieving his dream has caused him to become neglectful of her and push her away. The same happens with his friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) though to a lesser extent. The film is entirely from Jonathan’s perspective with the other characters only existing through their connection to him. This a deliberate choice as it’s his story with the others only supporting it. Susan makes that very point when she tells him that from his perspective he’s the artist and she’s the girlfriend which points to Susan feeling massively unappreciated in their relationship.
The film often counters this with Jonathan’s narration gushing about how amazing and talented Susan is but those statements are based on hindsight and rarely something he articulates to her. As such she thinks he sees her as a supporting player in his story. In the context of the film that’s exactly what she is because that’s how certain stories work but there is an obvious contrast between storytelling and reality with Susan being a person with her own ambition and aspirations that are ignored in favour of Jonathan’s journey. It’s enough for a musical to have her play her part in his story but she wants more out of her own life and she decides that the only way for her to get that is to leave him.
Susan’s narration bookends the film with her delivering the bombshell that Jonathan died at the age of 35 before seeing how successful Rent would end up being. These bookends mark a change in perspective and set up the idea that Susan may regret her decision to part ways with Jonathan though the film makes it clear that it was the right decision for her at that time. Her relationship with him was holding her back as shown by his indecisive approach to questions she asks him about a job she had been offered. To take it would offer stability for both of them but Jonathan is reluctant to settle down with her because doing so would be tantamount to giving up on his own dream. He can’t see past that which means he is unable to appreciate her point of view on this job offer. Jonathan is thinking and behaving selfishly because he is so focused on what he wants out of his own life that he fails to recognise what others want from theirs. Susan leaves him because she doesn’t want to be the supporting character in his story any more and Jonathan comes to mourn that loss.
This is another aspect of the film that impacted me personally. My fragile and declining mental state has driven people out of my life due to them being no longer able to handle being exposed to the version of me created by those issues. In the film Jonathan Larson experiences guilt and grief over driving Susan away after recognising that it was preventable if different choices were made. That’s something I can personally relate to with my lost friendships being preventable if I had been more conscious of my behaviour and the impact it was having on those around me. I now have to live with the fact that those broken relationships can’t be repaired because the decision was made to cut ties with me meaning that there’s no way for me to go about attempting to make up for my mistakes. This is something I feel I deserve because my behaviour brought it on and those people made the decision to turn away from me for their own sake. I will forever regret that it came to that and I torture myself thinking about what I could have done differently or wishing I could have a chance to put things right. All I can do is work to not have it happen to the friendships I still have.
Jonathan experiences that with Susan as shown by him always saving a seat for her at his shows and imagining her singing the crucial song he spends most of the film agonising over writing. The song wouldn’t exist without losing Susan so that negative experience sparked his creativity with an open question around whether he considers that to be worth it. Creating “Come To Your Senses” reinforces this being a deeply personal story for Jonathan Larson with him putting all of himself into his creation. He bares his heartache for all to see and the song itself ends up being a direct plea for him to recognise the drawbacks of his obsession. On some level he was aware of what he was doing but only became conscious of it when his own words were played back to him. The earlier song “Johnny Can’t Decide” does note Susan and Michael’s perspectives but the song is about him and frames their choices as an oppositional force to his own. Susan’s desire to settle down is framed as an obstacle and Michael’s abandonment of his own creative pursuits is interpreted in the song as a lack of understanding of why Jonathan is so driven.
“Johnny Can’t Decide” is a very important song as the narrative highlights how badly Jonathan misunderstands these two pivotal figures in his life. Both have adopted a realistic approach to what they can achieve and Jonathan turns his nose up at that because he is dialled into the romanticised notion of never giving up the chase. Michael has a high paying job, wears a suit to work, drives a BMW, lives in an expensive apartment and appears content in the life he has chosen. Jonathan is unable to understand this because he views it as Michael abandoning his dream of being an actor in favour of selling out. Since the film delivers little in the way of Michael’s perspective it’s impossible to determine if he is content with the choices he has made but all evidence points to him having no regrets aside from comments about travelling meaning going from airport to conference room before returning to the airport.
A conversation late in the film has Michael laugh about how mediocre an actor he was. The conversation is geared around reassuring Jonathan but it’s the best insight into Michael’s feelings around his own choices the film offers. Michael’s life is a poignant contrast to Jonathan’s with the skewed viewpoint of it being a soulless abandonment of a dream. It ties into Jonathan’s selfish outlook as he can’t imagine anyone being happy pursuing something that isn’t what he’d prefer to be pursued. It’s not intentional on his part but nonetheless it is something he frequently does.
Accepting reality is something that Jonathan struggles with throughout the film. A great example of this is when Michael tells him he’s HIV positive and the very real possibility of losing his best friend dawns on him. He casually references attending friend’s funerals earlier in the film and he also has a friend in hospital but those facts are framed through the context of his awareness of his own mortality. Michael effectively receiving a death sentence hits differently; most likely because of his recent major reality check around his -at that point- unfulfilled dreams.
The news forces him to embrace the inner decency that was there all along after reflecting on the friendship in a very powerful musical number. He resolves to be there for Michael every step of the way and waste none of the time they have left together. It marks a strongly implied shift in general attitude where he shakes himself out of his own selfishness to be a better presence in the lives of those he cares about. It’s redemptive in a way while also being a strong showcase of the power of obsession. This also forces recognition on Jonathan’s part that even though he wasn’t where he wanted to be in life he shouldn’t dismiss the good things about. Paradoxically in trying to ensure his decreasing time wasn’t wasted he ended up blind to the time with his friends that he was wasting. A lesson begins to be learned about what is really important in his life and when he gains that perspective he resolves to pursue his dream for the enjoyment rather than constantly chasing that success; at least that’s what is strongly implied.
To wrap up this essay of tangents where I flip liberally from appreciation of this beautiful film, analysis of what it has to say and airing my own personal feelings about my limitations, fear and unfulfilled ambitions I can only connect it all by articulating that this film really made me think and continues to do so. This film sets out to challenge anyone who ever dared to pursue something creative and questioned whether they can accomplish what they set out to in a world that tells them they never will.
It’s an uncomfortable film for me as it held up a mirror that made me consider my choices, mistakes, my self image and how I’m spending my own time. It also forces consideration of what’s really important, what success really means and whether it’s possible to find a suitable comfort level where the act of finding any time to do what you love is worth it by itself. I may not be able to answer those questions for myself right now but I’m comforted knowing I’m not alone in asking them.
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