With films like Moulin Rougeand Chicago, the movie musical seems to be coming back and in top form. In this holiday season the genre announces its triumph over conventionality with Chris Columbus's adaptation of the Jonathan Larson’s stage musical, Rent.
The film is based on Jonathan Larson's 1996 Pulitzer Prize winning musical, in which the starving artists of Puccini's "La Boheme" are relocated to Manhattan's East Village circa 1989. The film features Anthony Rapp as an aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen, recently dumped by Maureen (Idina Menzel), a performance artist who has taken up with a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms). There is also Mark's roommate, Roger (Adam Pascal), a frustrated musician and ex-junkie who begins a risky relationship with heroine addict/exotic dancer Mimi (Rosario Dawson); and Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a semi-employed philosophy instructor who falls for brash and lovable drag queen/street musician Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). Finally, there's Benny (Taye Diggs), the entrepreneurial landlord and the closest thing to a villain in this story. Not the typical stuff of an uplifting musical but here is where lies the magic of Jonathan Larson’s genius; in turning these misfits into an inspiring bunch.
The film reunites most of the original Broadway cast and Jonathan Larson's soul-stretching songs about love, art, real estate and AIDS. Rent is sensational – beautifully performed, gorgeously shot, and musically thrilling. But more important, the film medium has given Rent a sense of more intimacy than its stage version by allowing the camera to get close to character’s faces and environments. By doing this, the character’s dilemmas and passions ring louder, enhancing the immediacy of Larson’s songs.
A key element to the success of a movie musical really does hinge on how much the actors buy into the situations they find themselves in, and in Rent this is apparent. The film successfully uses most of the same cast who starred in the original 1996 New York production and their camaraderie and chemistry is palpable. New to the cast are Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, who earn their roles beautifully.
Rosario Dawson is fabulously sexy, moving and truly heartbreaking as Mimi. Idina Menzel is absolutely delicious. Her rendition of "Over the Moon", a performance piece during a protest is one of the comic highlights of the film. Anthony Rapp brings great energy charm and earnestness to his Mark. Adam Pascal is haunting and seductive in the role of the struggling musician. Jesse L. Martin is poignant as the big-hearted Collins and also worth noting is Wilson Jermaine Heredia in a joyously self-possessed and engaging performance as the outrageous Angel.
Filmmakers as diverse as Sam Mendes, Martin Scorcese, Rob Marshall, Baz Luhrmann and Spike Lee have set their sights on adapting Rent, to the screen but could never pull it off. Surprisingly, director Chris Columbus (an unlikely choice for this genre) proves to be an excellent pick. He wisely knows exactly how to crack open this material by stripping down Larson's work to the essentials, then building it back up again in his own cinematic way.
Columbus shows dexterity and imagination in transferring the spectacle onto the actual streets of the East Village but also by showing respect to Larson’s material. He has opened up the show, turning it into a far more varied and flowing entertainment, gliding his camera through the East Village, while at the same time maintaining the original's look and feel and almost every song of the score without apologies. Wisely, Columbus has also fleshed out the narrative by substituting some of the play’s recitative with dialogue therefore making it more accessible and clear to audiences. With these changes the genius of Larson's rock opera is even more evident up close and personal.
Jonathan Larson's powerful, emotional score is Rent's heart. The music is soulful, inventive and touching, alternately hard-driving and elegantly somber. The music and lyrics owe as much debt to Alan Menken and Sondheim, as to John Lennon and Elton John and has an infectious pulse that begs to be danced to. The haunting opening song, “Seasons of Love” spells out very early the premise of Mr. Larson's story about “making the most of limited time” and our hearts still melt and the eyes still mist.
The movie is literally a series of showstoppers. From the minute the first chord of the movie starts, you are immediately sucked into this world of misfits and bohemians. There are many memorable moments throught such as the "Tango Maureen" sequence in which Columbus stretches his cinematic creativity by filming it as a spectacular dream sequence involving dozens of tango dancers all dressed in black; the duet "Leave Me" set with the background of a very funny lesbian commitment ceremony; Idina Menzel’s comic rendition of "Over the Moon"; the recreation of the haunting “Seasons of Love" chorus line; the infectious love duet “I’ll Cover You” between Collins and Angel; the brilliantly re-imagined and exhilarating title song, "Rent," and the spectacular staging of Mr. Larson's best song "La Vie Boheme," a wonderful nonsensical boullaibase of ideas and attitudes ranging from microbrewed beers and Maya Angelou to Antonioni movies, to "Sontag, to Sondheim and to everything taboo."
Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography is complex and beautiful. There are some spectacular 360 degree shots that are as mesmerizing and functionally appropriate to the plot without being showy. New York city never looked as spectacular as on this film, while faithfully recreating the grit of the 1980’s East Village.
This version of Rent has not lost any of the grit and raw energy of the original stage show. It is filled with rich, funny, honest and charismatic characters. It will make you laugh and cry, and most importantly, make you feel that “there’s no day but today”. I highly recommed it.