While some may find the aging cast uncomfortably reminiscent of high school substitute teachers in leather pants, director Chris Columbus has captured the dynamic (if sometimes outrageous) spirit that made Rent a favorite on Broadway.
In agreeing to make Rent, Columbus was confronting a musical written by Jonathan Larson that debuted in 1996 but is set in 1989. Columbus was left with the choice between drastically updating the plot and cast for the big screen and a twenty-first century audience or accepting the flaws in both, but he opted for the best choice — and what is ultimately the only choice for die-hard fans — in sticking with the seasoned actors and slightly dated script.
The film now reads more like a heartfelt and exuberant tribute to the Bohemian 1980s scene that even the soundtrack acknowledges was in the throes of death when the musical was first penned.
The poignant chemistry between Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and his drag queen lover Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) is a testament to the brilliance of the original casting. Even newcomer Rosario Dawson, who plays the HIV-positive stripper Mimi, purrs and pouts so well it’s easy to forget she’s almost 10 years younger than many of her fellow actors and is comparatively unknown for her singing talents.
But it should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Rent (or Wicked) that Idina Menzel, playing the newly out and perennially prowling Maureen, steals the show. Though the ensemble cast generally lacks any decisive female lead, there are enough moments of brilliance and perfection that anyone not already singing the praises of the Idina Menzel powerhouse will likely be converted — even despite the obviously ridiculous performance piece “Over the Moon” that Menzel performed live rather than lip-synching.
It is a great testament to Columbus’ skill that he has the sense to be quiet when the moment demands subtlety; soft lighting and slow panning in “Life Support” let the experienced actors shine, unfettered by fancy technicalities or cinematic effects, in the roles they have perfected after nearly ten years on stage.
Even more exciting for the audience, however, is Columbus’s bravado with visual games that a live stage performance generally wouldn’t allow. Mark’s dream sequence in “Tango: Maureen” takes the number from a hilariously awkward duet to an energetic ménage-a-dance troupe of epic (and scintillating) proportions.
Furthermore, screen writer Steve Chbosky has added a few witticisms and one-liners, along the lines of “There will always be women in rubber flirting with me,” that break up even the tensest moments of the emotionally charged script.
The constant presence of filmmaker Mark’s ancient camera is a nice allegory for the film adaptation of a Broadway musical adaptation of Puccini’s opera La Boheme: it’s hard to ignore completely, but it is so endearing and benign that it isn’t invasive.
Another nice technical touch is Columbus’ choice to film group numbers, such as the joyful celebration-cum-requiem “La Vie Boheme,” with shifting perspectives, suggesting that they are not so much performing for you, as with you. As the song says you are, for a few moments at least, part of “an us, instead of a them.”
In the end, the movie’s success will likely hinge on the loyalty of die-hard fans and the willingness of moviegoers to accept a musical comedy, especially one filled to the brim with hungry people singing and dancing about poverty and AIDS.
While it’s true that there is something unsettling about the ultimate thrice-over exploitation of a show that is essentially anti-capitalist — especially when you realize that, in real life, everyone would have sold their radical bohemian idealism for a split-level in the suburbs by this age — when it all comes down, Rent makes you want to drop out of college, sell all your bourgeois belongings and dance on a coffee table with everyone you know.
Despite the show’s inherent flaws, Columbus has done a near-perfect job of adapting it for the big screen and fans will applaud his effort.