Sometimes in life, you read or watch a piece of art that has a profound effect on you. For me, there’s been two, the first being The Wind up Bird Chronicle (and South of the Border, West of the Sun to a lesser extent), and it’s grim incorporation of magic realism and surrealism where the lines between real-life, imagination and memory are blurred so fantastically that you don’t know what is actually happening to the protagonist, Noburu. Thank you, Haruki Murakami, for influencing my writing style so heavily.
The other is tick, tick… BOOM!, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on the life of Jonathan Larson, and expertly brought to life by lead actor Andrew Garfield. The latter, completely deserving of his Oscar nomination, is my personal choice to win this year (but then again, I’d have given it to him when he was nominated for Hacksaw Ridge).
I’m going to be talking a lot about the plot of this movie in this article, so please go and watch the film if you haven’t already. It’s phenomenal, and I would hate to ruin some of the emotional moments for you. However, if you have seen it (or you don’t wish to heed my warnings), feel free to read ahead.
tick, tick… BOOM! is a special kind of film, and I don’t mean that lightly. It’s based on the late Jonathan Larson, of RENT fame, and his journey to get his musical Superbia picked up by a producer in New York City. Set in the early 1980’s, we follow Jonathan as he struggles to grasp with his upcoming 30th birthday, panicking at the thought that he’s wasted the last 8 years of his life writing Superbia, and that he’s chosen the wrong path by being a creative. All of this hinges on the workshop he has planned, this is his success or failure moment. This is all in comparison to his best friend Michael, who abandoned his own acting aspirations and now works a successful job at a corporate marketing agency.
The film does an excellent job at showing the stressful tightrope walk between creating art, having fulfilling relationships, and trying to keep yourself afloat by working, all at the same time. Creating is a full-time job, you never turn off, and sometimes it takes a toll living in your own world, not just to you, but for the people around you too.
For the majority of the movie, Jonathan is desperately trying to write a new song for his play, one that he’s been told by his main influence, Steven Sondheim, is missing. He toils over his computer, the flashing bar of his word document sat after a single ‘You’re’, unable to force anything from his mind to paper, all the while the time until the workshop, and his 30th birthday, ticks away. His girlfriend wants to move out of the City to a stable job, yet he can’t take his mind away from his work to discuss this drastic life change with her, his best friend, Michael, grappling with the HIV positive result he’s been given can’t catch Jonathan for a fleeting moment to inform him of his life-shattering diagnosis.
Jonathan can’t do anything but work on his art, at the expense of him being present with the people around him. I’ve been there, the amount of times I got stuck writing The Toucan Man, and my sophomore novel (which is being released this summer by the way) and was unable to get out of my own head, for even a moment, just in case I lost the momentum I’d built up. I don’t talk about anything else when I’m like that, I recluse, and I work for hours at a time on my laptop, despite spending hours upon hours on one at work.
There’s a scene, where after a tense fight with his girlfriend Susan, she and Jonathan embrace, seemingly ready to move ahead positively in their relationship. This is shattered when she realises he’s mimicking piano keys on her back, seemingly putting their intimate moment to music with the intention of blasting it to the world within his musical. She fumes at him and ends their relationship then and there, baffled at his lack of emotional intelligence and inability to stop, even for just a moment.
There’s a quote director Lin-Manuel Miranda gave to the BBC that puts this better than I ever could:
“Because the dirty secret is, if you live with an artist, the microphone is always on.”
And on it is, so much of this movie has Jonathan taking notes from the world around him, from the treatment of the gay community by the government during the HIV epidemic to the words he sees sprawled across New York City. He never wants to miss a moment, a chance to perfectly word the perfect story. For Superbia to truly be the best it can be.
There’s a fear that I’ve got that I think backpacks off this, and it’s the same as the overarching theme of the movie, time. Artists are always recording for their work, because they want to get all of their ideas out before the time runs out. For Jonathan, sung excellently in the opening song ‘30/90’, it’s the thought of turning 30. For me, it’s not putting my ideas out into the world before the knell tolls. Jonathan Larson, died from an aortic aneurysm at just 35, the morning before RENT first previewed off-Broadway. He never lived to see any of his success.
The worst part of all of it is that it kind of proves his point.
He was the epitome of the tortured artist, he worked in a diner, not being able to bring himself to work for the man. He didn’t want to create for conglomerates who wanted people to buy what they couldn’t afford, or shove unhealthy products down their mouths in the name of money. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel guilty, wondering whether a past version of myself would shake his head in shame just as Jonathan would have.
I can see parallels between Superbia and my own teenage novel Pawns of the Gods, both ideas thought of out of teenage idealism, a product of their time, convoluted beyond belief just for the sake of being different, but the idea has been there for so long that it pains you not to see it realised. I’ve fought, and still fight with that novel, and I do hope someday I’ll be able to release it and do the story justice, not just for me now to be proud of, but for me all those years ago.
There’s a quote from this film that sums up being an aspiring writer so well that it makes me well up everytime I hear it. Jonathan’s agent, Rosa, says it to him after nobody is interested in producing his then life’s work, ‘Superbia’.
“You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on, and that’s what it is to be a writer, honey. You just keep throwing them against the wall and hoping against hope that eventually, something sticks.” – Rosa, tick, tick… BOOM!
It’s a daunting prospect. Nothing of mine so far has taken off, but I do what I have to and I go back to the drawing board, and I start again. Maybe someday something will stick, maybe it won’t, but if I can look back on a bibliography that I’ve written myself, that I poured every shred of my heart and soul into, then when the knell finally tolls, I’ll die a happy and fulfilled man.