The musical Rent—written and composed by Jonathan Larson—took on a legendary mystique when its 35-year-old author died suddenly the night before his play's first off-Broadway preview. Rent was undoubtedly a potent theatrical experience on the off-Broadway stage, but its path to mainstream popularity has slowly calcified the show into a quickly-dated, American Idol-esque tourist trap. Chris Columbus' attempt to blow Rent up to Hollywood size arguably takes the show the furthest it has been from its off-Broadway origins, but the intimacy afforded by the camera and the reunion of most of the original cast occasionally restore the emotional vitality of the piece.
As loosely based on Puccini's opera La Bohème, Rent has always suffered from its clunky story of young, supposedly avant-garde New York artists who expect free rent from a buddy in real estate. Their lives are further complicated by AIDS—three of the characters are HIV-positive. The story's central loft houses Mark (Anthony Rapp), a quick-witted filmmaker, and Roger (Adam Pascal), an aspiring singer-songwriter. Mark remains rankled by his ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel), who recently took up with a woman: a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms); likewise, Roger has yet to move on from the suicide of his girlfriend. The men's downstairs neighbor Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a stripper with a secret, has designs on the emotionally unavailable Roger.
The once-friendly Benny (Taye Diggs) married the daughter of Mark and Roger's landlord—now he's under pressure to root out the deadbeat riffraff from the family's downtown real-estate holdings. Meanwhile, unexpected bliss comes to two men in the social circle: hip philosophy professor Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and his new lover, a street-performing drag queen-drummer named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). All but two of the actors (Thoms and movie-star Dawson) are original cast members, an admirable choice by Columbus.
The thirtysomethings no longer quite pass as twentysomethings, but they've aged well enough, and their joy in each other's presence is palpable. The performances, pitched somewhere between technical proficiency and lived-in authenticity, serve Columbus' mostly reverent approach. Not surprisingly, Thoms and Dawson turn in the most spontaneous performances, handily holding up their end of a strong ensemble effort (Anna Deveare Smith and Sarah Silverman pop up in humorous cameos).
Larson's power-rock music and lyrics are affecting, even in their self-conscious vocal gymnastics (melisma, anyone?). Larson's specialty is the longing plaint of hope for a more fulfilling life to come. In an agnostic plea, Roger begs of his muse, "One song/To redeem this empty life." In the show's most well-known numbers, the ensemble harmonizes on the central "carpe diem" theme. "Seasons of Love" accounts for the "525,600 minutes" of the story, which Columbus places between Christmas Eve of '89 to Christmas Eve of '90 ("how do you measure, measure a year?"). "Another Day" makes the theme yet more explicit: "No day but today." Despite his many missteps, Columbus' unadorned treatment of these key passages fosters genuine "goosebump moments."
It's tempting to look at Rent as carrying a message so deeply felt that its author died to prove it, but deifying Larson would be a mistake. There's a case to be made that "Santa Fe" is a rip-off of the song "Santa Fe" from the 1992 movie musical Newsies; both songs moonily exalt Santa Fe as an escape from urban squalor. Larson spreads thinly across his characters while naively addressing the conflict of prolonged adolescence and responsible adulthood—why, exactly, is Benny such a jerk for insisting the artists pay for their lodgings? Perhaps sensing his pending overnight success, Larson also equivocates on the subject of art versus commerce.
But these scenes are only parts of Columbus' everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. One minute, he seems to be channeling West Side Story; the next, he's in the quick-cut world of Chicago. At times, Columbus' energy threatens to turn Schumacherian, but the director mostly retreats into the competent, generic tastefulness that is his "hallmark." Columbus' usefully employs montage to fill in the story, but gratingly imitates music videos in a bungled attempt to add visual appeal.
In "La Vie Bohème," Mark toasts, "To starving for attention,/Hating convention, hating pretension." In truth, Rent should have been a gritty indie a la Hedwig and the Angry Inch and should never have become the kind of big-budget, commodified sell-out that Mark fears making (then again, by the evidence of Mark's filmmaking, his talent qualifies him only to make Coke commercials). If Rent is long past due, Columbus still scores by cleverly highlighting gay marriage with the well-played argument-duet "Love Me or Leave Me."
These days, the piecemeal Rent is probably better approached as a concept album than as a rock opera. Since Columbus' film may have the most impressive sound mix of the year, Rent qualifies as an extra-showy concert film. Rentheads will contendedly quibble and swoon, while newcomers will bemusedly absorb the basic idea(s) of Larson's vision—seen though Hollywood's magnifying lens.