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‘tick, tick… BOOM!’: chase your dreams, but at what cost?

<h6>“Andrew Garfield” by Gage Skidmore / <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/" target="_self">CC BY-SA 2.0</a></h6>
“Andrew Garfield” by Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

Push the vaccination roll out, Olivia Rodrigo's world domination, and celebrity NFTs aside. 2021 was definitively the Year of Andrew Garfield.

The two-time Oscar nominated actor saw a surge in popularity last year, most notably from his — spoiler, I guess? — much anticipated, though much debated (read: he straight up lied about it) appearance as Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Audiences were impressed by the balance of playful, boyish charm and heart-gripping emotion that he maintained from his own Spider-Man duology, seven years prior.

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While Garfield played a central role in “No Way Home,” it was not his movie. He was rivaled by the star-power of his co-stars and the pop culture megaforce that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you want to see Garfield in his element, with less web-slinging and more piano playing, definitely watch his Academy Award nominated performance in “tick, tick… BOOM!”

“tick, tick… BOOM,” (the directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda — who also had an eventful 2021) tells the story of famed musical theater writer Jonathan Larson. Garfield portrays Larson, and we are introduced to him in the weeks leading up to his 30th birthday and all the existential dread that comes with grappling with the loss of one’s youth. Yet another film of an aging, white man going through an identity crisis is not by any means a novelty. But, rest assured, Miranda’s whimsical directorial style, Garfield’s incredible portrayal, and the surreal musical numbers work to capture the complexity of concepts like attaining fulfillment and a sense of accomplishment that will resonate with audiences of all ages, not just those on the cusp of 30.

The film opens with a clip of Garfield arriving on a stage and introducing himself as Larson. The clip, with its 4:3 aspect ratio and fuzzy, shaky, shot-on-a-potato cinematography, makes it look like it’s pulled right out of a ’90s VHS tape. Audiences familiar with the works of Larson in real-life will recognize this as a riff off his one-act production of the same name, a semi-autobiographical narrative in which a man wonders if he made the right career choice by pursuing performing arts, which Miranda heavily draws inspiration from.

Immediately you’re drawn into Garfield’s theatrical performance. The messy hair, flitting eyes, expressive hand gestures, and breathy, impassioned voice as he describes the ticking sound he’s been hearing for weeks scream “musical theater kid.” As we move through snapshots of Larson’s life, a woman’s voice begins to narrate: “This is Jonathan Larson’s story.” 

If this really is Larson’s story, then audiences will learn that Larson was a brilliant songwriter, an undying patron of the arts, and a man grappling with feelings of inadequacy and unachievable dreams. Garfield is relentlessly emotional — from watching the love of his life slip away from him to pitching musicals and facing rejection after rejection. The sheer dedication that he has for his craft will resonate with people who have loved something so much, for so long, that they feel that they will die without it, but wonder, perhaps, if that very thing is what is killing them in the first place. The pain in his voice when he suggests that he is no longer “a writer who waits tables,” but a “waiter with a hobby” is palpable. And that attention to emotion rings true in his musical performances, as well, for which he prepared by taking  singing lessons for a year.

Garfield’s performance is well complemented by Miranda’s directing. As musical theater and film are different media, translating stories from the stage to the screen — and vice versa — is always a balancing act. Miranda expertly makes this transition by portraying Larson as a man who eats, sleeps, and breathes music. 

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In Miranda’s imagination, music is Larson’s escape from reality, and it gives him moments of respite when the stress of writing a rock musical and the bustling diner rush become too overwhelming. In the film’s rendition of “Sunday,” for example, Larson hones in on the little details, the green stools and the cups of cinnamon coffee, and transforms the place into a composer’s dream. Everyone sings in perfect harmony, everyone knows their cues, and at the song’s climax, the claustrophobic walls of the diner come down. Larson is able to stretch his wings and perform in the SoHo sun.

But even though Miranda brings audiences into the fantastical musicals that play in Larson’s mind, he also reminds them of their limitations.

The film’s plot centers around Larson’s struggle to finish a musical in advance of his 30th birthday and a writer’s workshop that he believes will be his big break. Due to the immense pressure he places on himself to succeed, in finishing the musical, he withdraws from his family and friends and experiences intense anxiety.

Throughout the week and a half leading up to the workshop, the film asks a lot of questions of its audience: Is pursuing your dream no matter what worth it when it’s at the expense of the people you love? How long and how hard should you work until you accept that it’s time to give up? How do you measure success? Is being able to pursue your dreams selfishly, relentlessly a privilege in and of itself? These questions really come to light when Larson is confronted by his girlfriend Susan Wilson (Alexandra Shipp). 

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Wilson, while supportive of Larson’s dreams, is understandably frustrated by the sacrifices she’s had to make to support him. She wants to settle down, maybe even start a family, and that can’t happen in a tiny, cluttered New York City apartment. And even as Wilson is pouring her heart out to him, Larson’s mind is still caught up in the music, tapping out a melody on her shoulder as she cries. It’s a sobering moment as Wilson comes to the revelation that she will always come second to Larson’s dream.

All of these themes coalesce into a message that will resonate with young dreamers in America. Larson is so caught up with comparing himself to the accomplishments of other talented writers that he pushes himself to extreme limits to be successful. But the film suggests that success may not be a Tony-award winning musical on Broadway. Success could have been a smaller-scale life with Wilson or the transference of his incredible abilities to a more lucrative field. 

The real-life Larson, as is noted in the film’s introduction, passed away only five short years after the events of the film. He eventually received widespread recognition and critical acclaim for his musical “Rent” and will go down in Broadway history. But “tick, tick… BOOM!” urges audiences to recognize that that is not the only path to take. It asks them to consider what path they would take if they knew their days were numbered like Larson’s, and does not privilege the glamour of Broadway over more domestic routes.

“tick, tick… BOOM!” is a delightful watch for all the art lovers of the world, the 20-somethings having a quarter-life crisis, and everyone in between. With an Oscar-worthy performance by Garfield, amazing theatrical directing from Miranda, and themes around success that hit just a little too close to home, audiences tuning in are definitely in for a treat.

Auhjanae McGee is a junior in the English department and a senior writer for The Prospect. McGee previously served as Head Prospect Editor at ‘the Prince’. She can be reached at ajmcgee@princeton.edu, on Twitter at @auhj_marie, or on Instagram at @marionettes_jubalee.

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