Growing up in the fifties meant that I was fortunate enough to get into watching films just as the golden age of the big budget musical hit. Many of these classic films where originally huge hits on Broadway and their transfer to the screen were incredible to behold. My childhood was filled with memories of films like ‘West Side Story’, ‘The King and I’ and ‘Oklahoma!’. When I am called upon to review a musical now I have to admit the bar is set pretty high. While ‘Rent’ can not live up to the musicals of our past it does faire better than many of the recent stage to screen translations of late. The stage production hit New York City in 1996; almost exactly one hundred years after Giacomo Puccini finished ‘La Boheme’, the basis for the story. The updated tale is told in the year between the holiday season of 1989 and 1990 and is populated with a group of young bohemian artists living in the lower east side of New York City. The group is composed of the widest cross section of humanity possible. There is a novice film maker, a rock singer wannabe, a teacher, a stripper, a drag queen and a performance artist. As the year progresses they fall in and out of love, cope with a life threatening disease and fight back against a traitorous former friend.
Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp) wants little more out of life than to create documentaries. He travels the city with his hand cranked 8mm camera, filming everything in sight hoping for inspiration. His roommate is a recovering drug addict Roger Davis (Adam Pascal who now is an aspiring song writer and who is HIV positive. A friend of theirs, Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) is on his way to celebrate Christmas Eve when he is brutally mugged. Tom is nursed by a neighbor, Angel Dumott Schunard (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). The men fall in love discovering that they both are also HIV positive. Conflict begins when Mark’s former girlfriend, Maureen Menzel (Idina Menzel), the performance artist, is about to premier a piece that protests the construction of a new building that will displace a tent city of homeless people. As it turns out the property is owned by Mark’s former friend Benjamin ‘Bennie’ Coffin III ((Taye Diggs), who married the landlord’s daughter. He offers Mark a deal; he will forgive his back rent if Mark can get Maureen to call off her protest. Maureen also wants Mark’s help placing him in a difficult position. Her equipment is not working and she needs Mark to help fix things. Maureen also managed to get her new girlfriend Joanne Jefferson (Tracie Thoms), a rather staid lawyer, to work as production manager for the performance. Now, if this is not enough added to the mix is Mimi Marquez (Rosario Dawson) a stripper and HIV positive junkie (but with a heart of gold) who lives downstairs and becomes involved with Roger.
There is little doubt that thematically this film is light years away from the fondly remembered musicals of my youth. Still, Rent has one thing in common with those classics, it has energy. Unfortunately, this type of energy is best in the more intimate format of an off Broadway production. Having the actors a mere few feet away adds a lot to the production and is what made this a hit on stage. The film is more detached, removed from the immediacy of the audience it fails to hold together. A cynical New York would simply dismiss the problems of the characters with a simple ‘get a job and move.’ On film the story comes across as dated. With the advances made in treating HIV positive individuals and the gentrification of the neighborhood in question Rent has become a period piece removed from the gritty reality it depicts.
With two exceptions this is the original Broadway cast. This familiarity certainly adds to the presentation, each actor sure of their motivation and how to approach their characters. One of the new comers here was Rosario Dawson. While most of her film work to date failed to showcase her incredible singing talent she gets one of the more lively songs here, ‘Out Tonight’. Dawson belts out such lines as ‘Wanna put on my tight skirt and flirt with a stranger’. She is certainly the hottest junkie-stripper ever shown on screen. The other newbie, Tracie Thoms, also fits in well with this cast. She is able to sell her role with talent and conviction. Most people will recognize Jesse L. Martin as the detective on Law & Order. In order to take on this project his character on that television drama wrote a story line where he was shot and in a comma. He has a strong voice, emotional and full of passion. It’s a shame that his current work doesn’t offer the audience more of a chance to hear him. Anthony Rapp is perfect as the emotionally torn Mark. He is one character that the audience can actually emotionally connect with. He plays Mark as a man who wants to do the right thing by his friends but also wants the economic freedom to pursue his professional dreams.
This is a major departure for director Chris Columbus. Most of his previous work has been much lighter and family oriented. His freshman effort, Adventures in Babysitting made a name for him as a light director which was reinforced by such films as Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter flicks. Here Columbus has to contend not only with much heavier themes but stage a musical as well. Thankfully, the stage version’s use of operatic dialogue has been replaced by spoken the spoke word. Having every line sung would have been a disaster here. Columbus paces the film well, the musical numbers nicely fit in between the expository dialogue. He also has talent for framing a scene to get the most out of the actors and settings. The real downside here is Columbus seems too used to the family film to bring a stark realism to the movie.
Sony Pictures did a good job of presenting this film on DVD. The video is a vibrant 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer. Sure there is also a Pan & Scan version as well but lets not go there. With a film that is set mostly in dim lit rooms and having numerous night scenes the color palette holds together as realistic and nicely balanced. The contrast is free of any signs of distortion. The Dolby 5.1 audio is near reference quality. The speakers all get a good workout here. The channel separation of the front speakers provides a broad sound stage. The rear speakers are used to surround the room with the music instead of just giving a sense of ambience. Sometimes what worked on stage just doesn’t translate with the same impact on screen. It is not the actors or even the director, it is the nature of the story that this is better in person that on film.