Starring Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Rosario Dawson, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, Tracie Thoms and Taye Diggs.
Chris Columbus's Rent (the film), is based on Jonathan Larson's Rent (the musical), which itself is based on Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme (the opera). The film tells the story of eight friends in Greenwich Village in their early twenties, covering a year in their lives, from Christmas Eve 1989 through Christmas Eve, 1990. Benny (Diggs) is an entrepeneur who used to date Mimi (Dawson), an HIV-positive S/M "dancer" who's also a junkie. On Christmas Eve, '89, Mimi meets Roger (Pascal), an HIV-positive musician who used to be a junkie and whose girlfriend April committed suicide upon learning of her HIV status. Roger lives with Mark (Rapp), a filmmaker and ex-lover of Maureen (Menzel), a performance artist who left Mark for Joanne (Thoms), a lawyer. On this same Christmas Eve, Roger and Mark's former roommate Collins (Martin), an HIV-positive engineering student meets and falls in love with Angel (Heredia), an HIV-positive drag-queen percussionist, when Angel comes to his aid after Collins is mugged and beaten.
But more than anything else, Rent is a story of survival and family. Roger, Mark, Mimi, Maureen, Joanne, Angel, Collins and Benny are closer to each other than they are to their blood relations. Despite all of their suffering (La Boheme is a tragedy, after all), or likely because of it, they know that they can survive because they have each other. It is through these characters' strong bonds with each other that they can embrace Rent's central philosophy: "There is no future, there is no past...no day but today."
When Rent opened at off-Broadway's New York Theater Workshop on February 13, 1996, it became an instant blockbuster. Composer-lyricist-author Larson's wildly diverse rock-fueled score, Michael Grief's highly theatrical staging and an enormously talented cast of unknowns combined with Rent's core theme of "connection in an isolating age," to create the kind of critical and popular smash hit that the New York theater scene hadn't really seen since A Chorus Line debuted off-Broadway in 1975. On April 16, 1996, Rent transferred to Broadway at the close of it's NYTW run and by season's end had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the Tony, Obie, Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics' Circle, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League awards for the Best Musical of the 1995-96 season. As of this writing, it is still playing to near capacity at the Nederlander Theater and shows no signs of slowing down.
Now, nine years after its premiere, Rent has been made into a film, directed by Chris Columbus, with a screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and featuring six of the off- (and later on-) Broadway production's principal performers (Dawson and Thoms are new to the film). I wish I could report that the movie was brilliant, faithful to the original while re-inventing the material for the medium of film. But I can't. Because it should have been better.
Rent is a film that almost works. It should have worked, it had the potential to become a brilliant film musical. What's so frustrating is that there are times when the film works beautifully. It comes so close to succeeding as both a film and as an adaptation that I'm recommending it, despite the fact that it ultimately fails on both counts.
Rent's biggest flaw lies in Chbosky's adaptation, the approach to which must have been conceived with Columbus. On stage, Rent is almost entirely through-sung, like an opera. Rent has the usual songs you’d find in any musical, but the scenes that contain them are sung rather than spoken, often in rhymed couplets of recitative. For whatever reason, Columbus and Chbosky made the decision to replace the recitative with spoken dialogue, leaving only the stand-alone numbers - which do make up the majority of the score. On the one hand, theatre and film are two vastly different media and sometimes changes need to be made for the translation of one to the other. And the extensive use of recititive could be off-putting to people who aren't accustomed to through-sung storytelling. On the other hand, why make Rent if you're not going to make Rent?
The choice of spoken dialogue wouldn't have bothered me as much as it did if Chbosky had written a literate screenplay to replace the discarded music. But he didn't. The remaining songs are strung together with some very weak dialogue. In some cases, Chbosky didn't even bother writing new scenes, he just took the music away from the show's recitative and had the actors speak the lyrics. So some of the dialogue is spoken in rhymed couplets and some isn't. It's as if Chbosky and Columbus wanted to make some music videos and assumed that incidentals like plot, exposition and character development would take care of themselves.
This attitude toward the material is no more baldly visible than in the treatment accorded the title song. In the show, Benny owns the building that houses Roger and Mark's loft, and allows his friends to live there rent-free. In the first scene, Benny calls to demand that Mark and Roger suddenly pay him a year's worth of back rent. Roger and Mark launch into "Rent," an angry rant against Benny that in turn is taken up by the entire company as they express their frustrations against all of that suffering I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. In the film, Benny's demand doesn't come until after the song. So, when the cast sings, "We're not gonna pay rent!" they come off as a bunch of whiny twenty-somethings who think they should be entitled to a rent-free life because they're "artists." Well, shouldn't we all?
Some of the songs do work, and they work extremely well. "One Song Glory," "Santa Fe," "Light My Candle" and "I'll Cover You" are filmed beautifully and the visuals (cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt) tell us far more about the characters than anything in the screenplay. Maureen's performance/protest, "Over the Moon" is refreshing not only because Menzel sings the hell out of it, but because it's one of the few gasps of humor in the entire picture. (Chbosky and Columbus apparently failed to realize that the music they dropped from their source contained much of the original's humor.)
Menzel, in fact, sings the hell out of everything. Everyone sings the hell out of everything. The one consistently good thing about Rent is the music. Everyone sounds superb. The proof of the six original cast members' talents can be found on the 1996 cast recording and each sounds just as good now as he/she did then. There's no getting around that fact that they have aged nine years while their characters have remained firmly rooted in their twenties. Heredia* comes off best, joyfully recreating his Tony Award-winning Angel. Menzel and Rapp are both solid; if they're too old for their roles, at least they're working at the top of their games. Diggs is perfectly fine, but most of his role was whittled away by the screenplay. I've always liked Jesse L. Martin, but he's trying his damnedest here to not look like he's 36 playing 25, and it shows. I hate to point to ensemble cast and say, "He's the worst," but whatever charisma Adam Pascal had as Roger on stage (I saw him play the role and he had plenty) is lost on screen. He spends much of his screen time brooding behind a bad wig while doing his best impression of Ted Neeley, circa 1973. Tracie Thoms is new to Rent and relatively new to film. Her Joanne is dynamic, matching Menzel's diva Maureen at every turn in their duet, "Take Me or Leave Me." (Their song is set at the commitment ceremony thrown for them by Joanne's wealthy parents. Because all parents did that for their lesbian daughters in 1990.)
The true standout performance of Rent is Rosario Dawson. At 27, she's the youngest member of the cast (Thoms is second at 30) and the only one close to her characters' age. Her Mimi is nothing short of electric; she makes the kind of impression that many of her castmates made when they first performed the material. Dawson is the only one on screen to really come alive in her role and create a three-dimensional character. Her performances here and in this past summer's Frank Miller's Sin City should prove to be a turning point in her career.
*Full Disclosure: Several years ago, I was the musical director of a benefit that featured Wilson Jermaine Heredia. I think I can safely say that our brief acquaintenceship did not influence my impression of his performance. It wasn't until I starting writing this review that I even remembered we had met.
© John Reents, November 30, 2005
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