Translating a musical to film is a devilishly hard business. Most directors are wise to steer clear of the endeavor. In fact, it is such a hard business that I can only think of a handful of musical films that fully succeeded in making the transition. Two that immediately come to mind are of course West Side Story (1961) and Chicago (2002), for which both deservedly won Oscars for Best Picture. The difficulty comes from translating works that were designed to be performed on a stage into a film where people are singing yet do not look, well, goofy.
I saw the musical Rent on stage when it appeared here in Washington D.C. in the late 1990s. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the fact that all the performers were wearing microphones and there was the distraction of a band on one side of the stage. Even then as a young forty-something I was feeling a bit too old for it. Christopher Columbus directed the movie version that was released last year. Given the saccharine way he directed the first two Harry Potter movies, I felt no compelling reason to see it on the screen. However, my daughter owns the DVD so I slipped it in our player last night.
The movie Rent is a tough sell to American audiences. It is full of the kinds of characters guaranteed to raise the hair of members of the American Family Association. If you are easily offended, it will offend you. It is rife with immature, twenty something characters who swear, smoke, drink, shoot up, engage in promiscuous sex and move from one toxic relationship to another. They frequently prefer their own gender, or swing both ways. In fact, most of the characters are HIV positive, and many have come down with AIDS. Of course, in both the musical and the film, they are hardly apologetic for their extreme counterculture behavior; in fact, they have the audacity to celebrate it in all its largely dysfunctional glory.
Perhaps this contributed to the movie’s less than stellar box office sales. Outside of Austin, it would just not sell in Texas. However, if you enjoy the musical genre, you should watch the film.
The film is well cast and directed. It fully captures the gritty reality of Manhattan’s more distressed neighborhoods. In neighborhoods where forty years earlier the Jets were fighting with the Sharks, we now find an inglorious little Bohemia. Naturally, this is not coincidental. The author Jonathan Larson deliberately tried to write a modern day version of Puccini’s opera La Boheme. Rent is hardly the first movie to draw inspiration from this opera. Another recent example is Baz Lurhmann’s amazing 2001 movie Moulin Rouge!
The cast consists of people who generally have not starred prominently on film before. Anthony Rapp, who plays the pivotal role of the documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen in the movie, also played the character when Rent first appeared Off Broadway. In fact, he looks a bit old for the part. However he seems to have mastered the role of Mark, who is an against the mainstream, sensitive (but pissed off) estranged Jewish liberal. The best actors as you might expect play the pivotal rolls of the transvestite Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and Tom Collins (Jesse Martin). The joy Tom Collins feels for his love Angel is quite palpable on the screen. The heat between Roger (Adam Pascal) and Mimi (Rosario Dawson) is not quite as intense nor as understandable. Maureen (Idina Menzel) and Joanne (Tracie Thoms) spend more screen time estranged than being sweet to each other. I was somewhat disappointed in Idina Menzel as Maureen. She did not quite have the same frenetic, over the top style of the actress we saw in the staged version of the musical. Indeed, you spent the first third of the musical waiting for Maureen’s dramatic appearance. In the film, Columbus unwisely chose to put her in a flashback before she appears at her performance.
In general, the choreography is excellent, and the direction is very good. With many musicals, you are aware the music is lip-synched. Here it is impossible to tell. I noticed little snips removed from the staged version as well as padded dialog and extra scenes that you would expect translating a musical to film. You know of course that dozens of takes were needed for each scene, but like the music, it flows seamlessly. It is impossible to tell.
With a few exceptions, each character is a mountain of anger and hurt. They are often obnoxious and bullheaded, as early twenty something young adults frequently are. Each could profit from many sessions with mental help therapists. Instead, because they are largely broke, they become their own support group. Nonetheless, it is hard not to care about them as they careen from one young adult crisis to the next. Even if drag queens disgust you, you would not be a human if you did not shed a tear at Angel’s passing.
Christopher Columbus has partially redeemed himself in my eyes. I now forgive him for the first two Harry Potter movies. Maybe movie musicals are a niche where he can demonstrate special competence. Rent may not reach the lofty heights of West Side Story or Chicago, but it deserved much better than the tepid response at the box office. Take a chance and “Rent” it.
3.3 on my 4.0 scale.