As a director, Chris Columbus doesn't get much critical respect. His Home Alone movies were labeled puerile, his Harry Potter adaptations called leaden. Expectations, then, were not high when he was picked to direct the movie adaptation of Jonathan Larson's Rent.
Much-loved (it opened on Broadway in 1996 and is still running) and much-lauded (six Drama Desk awards, four Tony Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for drama), the rock opera about the bohemian life in New York's East Village would seem to have several strikes against its becoming a mainstream movie, even without Columbus.
Several of the characters are gay and while not graphic, homosexual love is not only accepted, it's celebrated. A few of the characters are junkies or former junkies. One is a stripper, another a "performance artist" who cheerfully drops her drawers to make a point. Many have AIDS. The East Village is not the sanitized, Disney-ized Times Square of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
And even worse, much of the movie is sung. This is not as much a sin as it used to be, thanks to the success of Chicago, but it's still not easy to get movie-goers to accept characters who break into song at odd moments, such as riding a bicycle through New York traffic.
But Columbus pulls it off.
His master stroke was to hire most of the original Broadway cast. There are no "names" here, no Britney, Brad, Jen, or Ben. Instead, there are actors named Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia.
This serves two purposes: It tears down any mental walls that stop the audience from believing in the characters, and it brings to the movie cast members who are intimately familiar with the plot and the aims of the show. Their passion jumps off the screen.
I only saw Rent onstage once, and it was not a wonderful experience. Perhaps the sound system prevented a complete understanding of the lyr-ics (and thus the story line), or my seat was too far back, or the cast was lackluster, or maybe I was just in a grumpy mood. Whatever the reason, I left the show wondering what all the hype was about.
Columbus' movie finally made me understand.
Rent embraces life and friendship and even love, no matter whether it is wonderful or wrenching.
There are eight main characters in Rent. Mark (Rapp), a filmmaker, and Roger (Pascal), an aspiring songwriter, are roommates. Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a former roommate, is a professor of philosophy at NYU who, after being mugged, is rescued by Angel (Heredia), a transvestite street drummer. Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a stripper, is attracted to the emotionally damaged Roger. Then there's Maureen (Idina Menzel), a self-absorbed actress who dumped Mark and became involved with a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms).
Benny (Taye Diggs), a former friend of Roger and Mark, sold out to the establishment by marrying money. He now wears custom-tailored suits, drives a Land Rover, and has become the owner of several buildings in the East Village that he wants to tear down and replace with a virtual music studio and condos. One of those buildings houses Mark, Roger, and Mimi, who, along with many other of their friends, haven't had the money to pay the rent in a very long time.
Over the course of the year, some of these characters will find love, others will die. There is laughter and joy and heartbreak as they try to balance life with creativity, passion with acceptance. Oftentimes, the movie is so gritty and realistic that you can almost smell the unwashed bodies and urine in the stairwells.
Rent is not perfect. Occasionally, it becomes so silly that all the good will it previously generated can't save it. One production number, "The Tango Maureen," works because it injects some much needed humor into the proceedings. Another, "La Vie Boheme," with the entire cast dancing on restaurant tables, simply seems self-indulgent.
One also might argue that Columbus again succumbed to his big weakness as a director: He repeats the source material rather than re-imagines it. Creativity takes a backseat to faithfulness. It's funny how that works. I don't recall hearing any such complaints about Chicago and its director, Rob Marshall.
There are some dull moments and some scenes alluded to in the play are fleshed out to little purpose. But overall, Rent is filled with an energy and vitality that are not often found in modern films.
Very simply, it sings.
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