In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, Tick tick BOOM! an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s eponymous musical, the viewer is given a ringside view of an artist engaged in forming his voice. There are the usual beats we have come to instantly associate with such journeys – the tussle between compromise to the ‘dark side’, here exemplified by a job in advertising, and persevering in one’s creative impulses.

The protagonist, Jon (Andrew Garfield), does skate close to the former and even considers disposing of all his lifelong ambitions of being a musical theatre writer, and agree to his roommate and childhood friend, Michael’s (Robin de Jesus) proposals of letting his innovative and spontaneous ideas for jingles be utilized instead for ads. Miranda does not flinch from displaying the grind of a writer’s life, beset with its often self-absorbed fitfulness and the vagaries of financial payoffs, as if almost threatening in every possible way to dissuade oneself from continuously trying, going pigheadedly to do what one loves to accomplish and rather just roll over to the more secure and stable life.

For example, take these lines from the song, ‘Johnny can’t decide’,

“Johnny wants to hide, but can he bend his dream-like his friend?

Ambition eats right through you, yet I hold so tight to things I think true…

How can you soar when you are nailed to the floor?”

These establish the many quandaries that haunt, the indecisions that plague, and refuse to let go of Jon as he strives relentlessly to finish his eight-years-in-the-making dystopian rock musical, Superbia. Besides bearing the brunt of countless rejections, he has voluntarily saddled himself with the baggage of living up to the benchmarks of musical heritage.

As his thirtieth birthday is approaching, he keeps reminding himself, castigating himself, that Paul McCartney was much younger when he wrote his last song with John Lennon, while one of his heroes Stephen Sondheim, who would come to be an infrequent but solid voice of advice propelling him for the entirety of his artistic growth and anchoring his confidence, was barely twenty-seven when he had his first Broadway show.

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The opening number, 30/90, which sets up the manic breathless rush with which Jon is scrambling through his everyday life just so to commit more ardently to his musical, frames the impending thirties as a marker, arbiter of whether whatever he had worked at till so far has carved out any longstanding benefits or ensures the possibility of a somewhat planned out and feasible life ahead. By their thirties, his parents had children, decent jobs and mortgages. Jon wonders what he has got to show for as he turns thirty. This anxiety leaks through the film and saturates each stride Jon takes to get at what he is dreaming of. Miranda persuasively shows Jon finds the strength in the conviction of his gifts repeatedly tested. He is pushed to straining extremes by his ideals.

Tick tick… BOOM! 2021

Jon sticks to his waiter job at a diner in New York and stays at his downbeat apartment as he waits for his big break of some producer taking a chance on his to-be-completed musical and putting it up on Broadway. Michael, who came to NY with him with hopes of being an actor, however ducks early and lands a lucrative spot in advertising. Jon’s girlfriend Susan (a charmingly self-possessed Alexandra Shipp) felt the hunger of her pursuits in modern dance totter away after a serious accident during rehearsals. Jon is surrounded by the precariousness of one’s passion is either lost violently or ceding it in exhaustion, which only seems to make him doubly determined, vigilant and soldier onwards even more staunchly, defending and in service to his calling at punishing costs.

The glimmers of the so-called good life are brightly rendered in “No more”, set against Michael’s move from the grungy, ill-equipped flat they shared to a ‘deluxe apartment in the sky, a spanking upscale apartment replete with attendants in its lobbies.

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It is only at the midway mark when a theatre maven offers to put up Jon’s presentation of Superbia to a bunch of potential producers among its audiences that the significant tensions that lie at the heart of the film begin reverberating with the danger of high stakes, as far as being diligently attentive to one’s relationships are concerned, tying themselves inseparably to consequences of stubborn creative zest. He has only a couple of days to cobble together a band for his musical presentation and is insisted on incorporating a climactic song into the second act. While he prides himself on his instincts for spontaneous output of compositions, he is stuck miserably at creating just this one decisive song.

Miranda circles around the conundrum of finding time to work at your art, connecting with your friends while managing the unyielding demands of work all at the same time. The film captures the madness of shuttling across multiple obligations and fulfilling innermost wants to be solely invested in art with merciless urgency. It never airbrushes the daily reality of being a writer, the hours and hours of slogging away in hope for one sparkling line that cuts to the bone of what you want to express with maximum honesty and authenticity, the helpless foraging for scraps of inspiration that may arrive in roadside graffiti or in the form of ridiculous blind rhetoric of primetime debates on TV news channels.

Miranda stages some key sequences with delightful abandon, moving fluidly from one-foot tapping number (‘Sunday’) that spills out from the diner to the street to house parties and blending even with paeans of separation. The film maintains a coldness in its excavation and warmth in its eye as it situates the alienating and isolating effects of artistic drivenness. Garfield perfectly locates an inchoate artist slowly growing into his own, stumbling through the many dissociations from his friends and the ensuing heartbreak of being misunderstood which occur as he becomes more and more consumed in his wish to finish the final song. Watch him especially in a moving scene as he sees his hard work pay off when the song is finally belted out, but the immanent cost it came at also flashes before him.

The film earns pronounced emotional moments as it capitalizes on the spate of HIV+ infections of the 90s, at times coming off as unnecessarily heavy-handed and repetitive in its attempts to address the gay rights movement surfacing to the fore, intertwining it closely with the ways in which the relationship between Jon and Michael plays out. Yet the film’s intensely empathetic gaze on the seemingly smallest of things, ranging from what a few words of constructive support from a long admired mentor can do to propel your ambition forward to not losing faith despite projects being staggered to a halt, can gain immediate resonance with anyone. Tick tick BOOM! joyous energy scores triumphant highs, each song hewn together in an exultant progression.

Stream Tick Tick BOOM! on Netflix

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