To be honest, I was not a fan of the original musical RENT. I will agree that when its creator,
Jonathan Larson, died on the eve of its opening, the theater world lost a promising talent. Who knows
what he would have produced had he lived? His death merely added a patina to the already over-hyped
reaction to the original musical. Clearly the show spoke to a segment of its audience – some of whom
had never ventured to Broadway before. It addressed controversial topics that seemed unlikely ones for
a musical – squatters’ rights, same sex relationships, and HIV disease. RENT went on to rack up numerous
accolades including the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony® Award and it has eked out a run of ten-plus years at
the Nederlander Theater.
For me, though, the problems with the musical rested on the lyrics and book. Granted it was a
masterful stroke to relocate the Bohemians of 19th-century Paris to late 20th-century Manhattan’s
Alphabet City. I lived near that neighborhood in the mid-1980s and watched as gentrification has turned
it into yet another trendy place. Some of Larson’s choices, though, were questionable, and the score was
uneven at best. Several numbers hit their mark, but others, particularly the Act One closer, “La Vie Boheme”
contained cringe-worthy lyrics. In the theater, the words sometimes were garbled by the sound system, so
it didn’t matter much, but if one listens closely to the original cast recording one can hear them. Of course,
some of the better songs have become cabaret standards (“One Song Glory” and the Act Two opener
“Seasons of Love”), and these are among the best numbers in the show.
From the time the show opened, there was talk of a film version. Martin Scorsese once held the rights
and later Spike Lee (whose name is mentioned in a lyric) tackled the material. Since it defeated both of
these very New York-based filmmakers, the project appeared to be destined for development hell. I
mean, if those two distinguished filmmakers couldn’t get a story set in late 1980s Manhattan off the ground,
who could? The surprising answer was Chris Columbus, who is noted for his more family-friendly
franchises like HOME ALONE and the first two Harry Potter films (which I confess I enjoyed partly
because Columbus was so faithful to the source material). Add to the fact that the director decided
to cast most of the original performers, most of whom are now a decade older than the characters were
conceived to be, and, at least on paper, the project seemed questionable, if not doomed.
Now, I also have to factor in problems that arose on the night I saw the film. I arrived more than a
half-hour before the screening was to start only to be told that there was another screening that was running
late. Since there was no waiting area, I went to get a cup of coffee, returning to find a block-length line of
other patrons waiting. After waiting over an hour, we were finally ushered into the screening room and the
struggle to find a seat followed. So by the time the movie started, I was cranky and in a foul mood, prepared
to hate whatever appeared on screen.
So imagine my surprise when I became almost immediately engaged. Columbus and screenwriter
Stephen Chbosky rearranged some of the songs and in a bold move decided to start the film with the
Act Two opener “Seasons of Love.” The eight principals perform the number on stage and it kicks off
the tale by setting the proper tone for what follows.
Mark (Anthony Rapp) is a would-be documentary filmmaker who shares a squatter’s loft with
singer-songwriter Roger (Adam Pascal). Mark is coping with being recently dumped by his longtime
girlfriend, performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel) who left him for another woman – lawyer Joanne
(Tracie Thoms). Roger is HIV positive, and is still dealing with the suicide of his girlfriend who killed
herself after receiving notice of her infection. Their former roommate Benny (Taye Diggs) has married
the daughter of the building’s owner and arrives on Christmas Eve to collect a year’s rent. Another former
roommate, Tom Collins (Jessie L. Martin) shows up, is mugged and tended to by transvestite Angel
(Wilson Jermaine Heredia). Rounding out the main cast is Rosario Dawson (the only major cast member
who did not appear in the original stage production) as Mimi, an HIV-positive stripper with a drug problem
who shares a history with Benny and also lives in the same building.
It was a brilliant stroke by Columbus to cast as many of the show’s original cast as possible. These
actors created the roles and even though a decade has passed, they assume the parts like a second skin.
Some make more of an impression than before, particularly Jesse L. Martin, who nearly steals the film,
and Idina Menzel who makes Maureen’s performance art sequence one of the highlights of the piece.
(Confession time: I could barely stand to listen to that number on the original cast recording.) There is
also a terrific fantasy sequence for the number “The Tango Maureen” featuring Anthony Rapp and
Tracie Thoms. I do have to say that the only disappointment for me was Wilson Jermaine Heredia who
was the show’s heart on stage. On screen, though, he barely registered. Instead, Jesse L. Martin
emerged as the more intriguing half of that couple.
I am as surprised as anyone by my reaction to this film. I went in to see it in a bad mood, expecting
to be disappointed. I came out moved and invigorated thanks to Columbus’ sensitive direction and the
superb performances of most of the cast.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving drugs
and sexuality, and for some strong language
Running time: 135 mins.
Viewed at the Tribeca Screening Room
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.