Struggling in the Countdown of Life

Netflix’s new musical movie Tick, Tick… Boom! is a biographical musical drama film, telling the story of Jonathan Larson’s creation of his musical project before his success. It beautifully demonstrates the struggle to pursue dreams in our finite lifetime.

By Xiaoman Cui

Picture: Macall Polay/Netflix © 2021

Stage plays and musicals are originally niche art forms. But even as a niche genre piece, Netflix’s new movie Tick, Tick… Boom!, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, received widespread applause. The film is based on the semi-biographical stage musical of the same name, which is about talented playwright Jonathan Larson who is writing a musical to enter the industry. With his 30th birthday approaching, he struggles with love and friendship and must create a masterpiece before he thinks it’s too late. Andrew Garfield as Jonathan presents an outstanding performance by successfully portraying a depressed and despondent artist.

A Narrated Musical

tick, tick… BOOM!

USA 2021
1h 55mins
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens

The film is in the form of a musical, with lots of singing and dancing episodes from beginning to end. It intersperses traditionally cinematic scenes with Jonathan’s narration and performance, giving the audience an immersive experience of watching a real stage play. Unlike other musical films such as Annette, not every dialogue is singing, which is pleasant as this usually only makes the comprehension of the film rather difficult. And unlike typical musical films such as The Phantom Of The Opera, instead of being set in a grand and solemn background, it tells an everyday story.

The lyrics are well written, helping the protagonists better express their feelings, and making it possible to build bridges between the characters and audiences. With the line »Compromise or persevere? Johnny has no guide, Johnny wants to hide«, the protagonist’s struggle and anxiety are made palpable for the audience. The lyrics also precisely describe love in current times:

Love is passé in this day and age, how can we expect it to grow? Nothing lasts anymore. Love becomes disposable.

Touching melodies and beautiful lyrics make the singing performances impressive.

Normalizing the Genius

To portray a disappointed artist is not a brand-new substance. But it still hits universal pain points, and we can see an image of ourselves in the protagonist, even though Jonathan is a genius playwright. Director Lin-Manuel Miranda normalizes the genius by showing him facing similar problems like everyone else, like difficulties to chase his dreams, lack of inspiration, friendship and love. Especially for young people struggling to build the live they desire, there is a lot of potential for identification in Jonathan. 

The incessant ticking noises, constantly appearing as a background sound throughout the film, not only indicate the countdown of Jonathan’s approaching 30, but also the countdown of his whole lifetime. The movie’s ending suggests that the meaning of pursuing a dream lies in the pursuit itself. Even if we can not see the final success, or even success never happens, what really makes us sparkle is we ourselves, who fight for dreams, in the countdown of life.

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