Disclaimer: If you like the musical Rent, you will likely like this film – but you will likely not like this review. Sorry.
Here's a truism you're welcome to contest: every contemporary Hollywood musical is a potential rescue action. Here we have an entire genre of filmmaking that's been left for dead: it still flickers to life every now and then, with a Moulin Rouge here, a Dancer in the Dark there, but if it's ever going to matter again, it needs one major sweep of resurrection and reinvention. For awhile, it looked like Chicago was going to be it, but I think in the end, Rob Marshall's multi-Oscar winner was more of a question than an answer: it was, in fact, a challenge. "No excuses," its very existence seemed to say. "If we're gonna do musicals, we're gonna do them goddamn right."
So what does any of this have to do with Rent, Chris Columbus' big-screen adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson's very-mid-90s musical theater phenomenon? Well, my dear, a lot. Because, as far as I'm concerned, when it comes musicals, Chicago presented a challenge that the mainstream filmmaking community has failed to accept. How can you make a musical in 2005 and not have a sense of the history of the genre, and a hope for its future? Rent is a total waste of resources, not because it's so completely foul (although it's certainly not good), but because it falls so far short of mattering in the grand scheme of things. By erring, at every turn, on the side of fan-wary caution, Columbus has made a film that will probably go over splendidly with devoted "Rentheads". The problem will lie in not just pleasing, but in fooling, everyone else. Rent brings absolutely nothing new to the musical cinema table, and as far as I, a devout believer in this near-dead genre, am concerned, that's just unacceptable. The stakes are too high for empty-headed stage-to-screen transpositions in the name of brand extension. As far as I'm concerned, any contemporary musical film that is anything less than spectacular is a waste of energy, money, space, and, above all, time.
Rent's trouble starts early, with a bizarrely out-of-place prologue in which the seven leads belt out the show's signature number, "Seasons of Love", from the stage of what looks like a high school auditorium, each in their own pool of spotlight. The camera moves horizontally down the line, framing each character alone for a moment, as if in lieu of proper introduction. I found this scene, short as it is, entirely baffling, and I can't imagine why Chris Columbus thought it a good idea to reference the stage from the start of an adaption that takes pains to bring this musical back out onto the streets that inspired it.
The film then moves straight into the show's title song, followed by a sequence which introduces us to the ensemble's central characters. Mark (played by Anthony Rapp, who valiantly rescues every number he anchors), a budding filmmaker, pledges to take his wind-up Bolex everywhere he goes in order to document the world as he sees it for one year. His world, we soon learn, mostly revolves around a huge loft in what used to be called Alphabet City, in which he lives, rent-free (chortle), with Roger (Adam Pascal), a recovering heroin addict/AIDS sufferer/rock star who can no longer bring himself to write music; and occasionally Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), who seems to be some kind of rebel academic, and who also lives with AIDS. Coming home after an absence, Collins is jumped on Avenue B (giggle) and is rescued by Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a street drummer who often masquerades as Louise Brooks. Two former roommates are absent: Maureen (Idina Menzel), Mark's performance-artist ex-girlfriend who has jumped over the socio-sexual fence to shack up with a chick lawyer; and Benny (Taye Diggs, Menzel's real-life husband), who has married into money and now owns the building Roger and Mark are essentially squatting in. Benny will allow the boys to live in the space, rent-free, if they help him develop some kind of high-tech "cyber-arts" facility on the ground floor. Judging by Mark and Roger's reaction to that proposal, "cyber" was, in 1989, a synonym for "unspeakable evil".
So Mark arrives home on Christmas Eve to find that the lights are out and the heat has been turned off. After joining Roger around the living room garbage bin to burn the fruits of creative labors past for light and heat, the roommates' collective angst spills out onto the fire escape, and we see that - lo and behold - the whole
Ah, the ravages of time. Right off the bat, it's hard to take these kids' problems seriously, in part because it's just so apparent that they're no longer kids. Pascal and Rapp, like most of the stars of this film, initiated their roles in the original Broadway production. Ten years on, the fact that they're all obviously in their mid-to-late 30s adds an ... interesting layer to the proceedings. Even the most devout Rentite might find themselves just an eensy bit baffled as to why Martin (who graduated from Broadway to Law and Order, with a brief and not at all illogical stop as a love interest on Ally McBeal in between) thinks he can get away with playing a 25-year-old. Meanwhile, any garden variety cynic will see that Rosario Dawson, the one big-name addition to the cast is, if not too old to play the 19-year-old junkie/stripper Mimi Marquez, then certainly too movie-star confident not to know that she's been far outshined by the cast's real singers. The very fact that Dawson made it into this film is the fault of yet another accident of timing – original Mimi Daphne Rubin-Vega was deemed too old, and too pregnant, to take on the role.
Luckily, Columbus doesn't require the oldsters to engage in too much physical activity. Though the film is almost wall-to-wall song, only three scenes could vaguely qualify as "production numbers" in the classical sense. These scenes – set to "Tango: Maureen", "Out Tonight", and "La Vie Boheme" – in terms of level of difficulty, inherent enegry, and cleverness of design, couldn't begin to compete with even the least proficiently choreographed moments of Chicago or Moulin Rouge, but they've got a spirit that the rest of the film clearly lacks. "Tango", which comes about twenty minutes in, is an early high point, employing the kind of slightly cheeky fantasy/reality juxtaposition that filmmakers like Vincente Minnelli made brilliant careers out of. It's here that Rapp first pops out as the unlikely gem in a cast full of undoubtedly talented performers; seeing his angsty-but-slight hipster bang out his steps, we're reminded of why, when all is said in done, there's really nothing as satisfying to the senses as a really great musical sequence.
But most of the Rent's numbers are grandly disappointing in comparison. Columbus has chosen to set the majority of the film in real locations (or, as the now-complete gentrification of the Lower East Side demands, West Coast facsimilies thereof), and you can see his logic. Though the compositions are universally bland and the lyrics mostly insipid, there's a kind of undeniable emotional power to the songs that's worth highlighting. But with Green Day producer Rob Cavallo's karaoke-style, synth-guitar-heavy production preventing any true vocal virtuosity from rising to the surface, Columbus' attempts to let the performances carry the thing too often comes across as mere lazy staging. The exception would be "Take Me or Leave Me", a fantastic late-second-act diva battle that allows Menzel and Tracie Thomas (a newcomer to the role of Joanne) to really bring it.
As with any accidentally bad film, there are a lot of heads on which one might be tempted to assign blame, but the fact is, this is a picture that, very simply, took too long to get done. It's impossible to discount what a difference nine years makes; to get right down to it, this poor old girl is dated as hell. From its Off-Broadway debut in 1996, Rent was hailed as an instant classic. It was supposed to be a manifesto of sorts, and on that score, in its day it certainly worked. But with a decade of wear and tear under its low-slung studded belt, it's hard to imagine the material, especially as presented here, winning any new converts to the cause.
Larson, who died mere hours before the musical began its initial run, had set out to update La Boheme to reflect love in the time of AIDS; he was surely also interested in giving musical theater audiences (who are not traditionally known for having their delicate fingers on the pulse of the streets) a glimpse of exactly what was going on far, far below 42nd and Broadway. That in itself was nothing new - Hair pulled off a similar trick three decades earlier – but if there's anything truly interesting about Larson's show, it's that, even more than that hippy-drippy chestnut, Rent is inextricably tied to time. Set specifically in 1989-1990, it has an awful lot to say about race and sex and class and age and generation and, above all else, the sad state of New York in the deep-dark hangover of the 80s, that doesn't seem to matter much at all anymore. It's the story of a gentrification that has already happened, of a countercultural revolution whose signposts have, not ten years later, long been folded into the fabric of culture at large. As of this writing, the yuppification of Lower Manhattan and the general commercialisation of Gen X bohemia is a process that's so far in the past, to even reference a point where it all might have been preventable seems both futile and quaint. Even Rent's central catchphrase, "No day but today", loses some urgency in a era where AIDS itself is no longer considered a death sentence.
I imagine none of the above will matter to the Rent-faithful, and if I felt like there was any unique kind of pleasure to be had in this film, frankly, much of it might not have mattered to me. But as someone who never took a shine to the musical – I don't think there's much getting around the fact that the score is made up of mediocre-at-best soft rock songs, and the story told without a modicum of wit – the fact that Columbus takes pains to let the material itself "shine" without adornment (or, really, even adequate staging or contextual consideration) results in an end product that's way below par for a genre in desperate need of an adrenaline shot. Rent is not awful, but it's milquetoast through and through, and for something that seems to think it changed the world, that's a pretty awful thing to be. If you'd like to see what I consider to be a great movie musical, please look to Swing Time, or The Band Wagon, or A Star Is Born, or My Sister Eileen. And if you feel you must indulge in anachronistic establishment-bucking fantasy for two hours, may I suggest Good Night, and Good Luck instead?