Remember all the money and Oscars the 2002 film version of the musical "Chicago" took to its ice-cold bosom? "Rent" probably won't be as lucky. But it's a pretty good version of a pretty great stage phenomenon.
The film tries a little of everything: a little realism, a little fantasy, a little New York location work, a lot of West Coast soundstages and back lots. At one point it nearly expires completely thanks to the lame performance-art spoof, "Over the Moon," one of the most conspicuous dead spots in a stage-to-film musical since Audrey Landers walked back and forth, in lieu of dancing, in "A Chorus Line."
Yet on the stage-to-screen musical scale, spanning "A Chorus Line" or "A Little Night Music" on the low end and "Cabaret" on the high, "Rent" is a solid midrange performer. It's fun to see many of the original off-Broadway and Broadway cast members doing their thing for the camera. And if several of them now find themselves north of 35, there's nothing like encroaching middle age to add a layer of pathos to the plight of semistarving artists.
Director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Stephen Chbosky maintain the original's setting and era and most every tune, without apologies. On stage, the dialogue was virtually non-existent. On film, it's spare as well, although some of the explanatory recitative has been turned into dialogue, painlessly.
From the stage cast the film features Anthony Rapp as videographer Mark Cohen and Idina Menzel as his ex-lover, Maureen, a bisexual now with lawyer Joanne (Tracie Thoms, new to the material). Adam Pascal, looking a bit lost on camera, re-creates the role of Roger, Mark's HIV-positive roommate. He's a singer-songwriter who attracts the hungry eye of HIV-positive junkie and borderline-exotic dancer, Mimi, played well enough by Rosario Dawson, who wasn't in the original and fares nicely and who really does look thin enough to be a junkie.
Mark and Roger live in a spacious rat-hole of a loft, part of a building managed by their old pal and sometime nemesis Benny (Taye Diggs). Meantime Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) falls in love with the drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), another HIV-positive citizen wondering how many tomorrows he has coming. Martin went on to become a "Law & Order" regular after his initial "Rent" success, but "L&O" ubiquity has its drawbacks: Bopping down the sidewalks of New York, Martin's Tom Collins appears to be doing undercover police work dressed as a Lower East Side bohemian.
Here's how much of a red state musical "Rent" is not: Not only is it lousy with gays and lesbians and drag and drugs, the Broadway cast sang its best-known song, "Seasons of Love," at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. The show itself is the Clinton-era musical, in its big-tent humanistic inclusiveness, even though Larson wrote about his life and times of the previous decade, the 1980s.
By the time the 1979 film version of the 1968 musical "Hair" came out, the '60s weren't recent and they weren't yet retro-hip. It took "Rent" nine years to make it to the screen, and similar to "Hair," Larson's phenomenon embraced an era and an array of song styles, one ear cocked toward Broadway at all times, that dated more quickly than expected.
Yet it doesn't matter much, especially to the pre-sold fans. I love the "Rent" score in the same way a lot of people loved the music from "Hair." (I love a lot of "Hair" too.) Yes, both shows flatter young audiences to no end, make silly adolescent fun of These Parents Today and carry an intoxicating anti-establishment message. But they're sweet about it, and sincere.
Columbus' directorial career has been marked by tremendous piles of cash, via impersonal, high-grossing junk such as "Mrs. Doubtfire" or, more egregiously, the first two "Home Alone" pictures. (Later Columbus traveled up the Hollywood chain to take on the first two "Harry Potter" films.) It's a pleasant surprise, given much of his earlier work, to see how nicely Columbus and editor Richard Pearson handle most of the "Rent" numbers. The cutting rhythm, only occasionally too busy for its own good (as in "Today for You"), allows for some pleasing, full-body footage of the performers in motion, unlike some of the dodgier bits in "Chicago."
Some things you could do without: There's a montage of Roger driving to Santa Fe and standing around on red rocks, for example, that helps neither the story nor the music. But "Tango Maureen" has been expanded, wittily, to become a dream sequence. And a lot of "Rent" can still bowl you over if you're at all susceptible to its pop-rock romanticism.
In the song "Santa Fe," the artists contemplate leaving New York for sunnier climes and wonder: Why don't we just "devote ourselves to projects that sell"? With most of his career Columbus has done just that. With "Rent" no sure thing at the box office, especially with America slowly folding up its big tent of inclusion you suspect Columbus caught a glimpse of the man he once was. And what do you know: He didn't mess the thing up.
Directed by Chris Columbus; screenplay by Stephen Chbosky, based on Jonathan Larson's stage musical; cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt; production design by Howard Cummings; music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson; edited by Richard Pearson; produced by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Columbus, Mark Radcliffe and Michael Barnathan. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving drugs and sexuality, and for some strong language).
Mimi - Rosario Dawson
Benny - Taye Diggs
Angel - Wilson Jermaine Heredia
Tom Collins - Jesse L. Martin
Maureen - Idina Menzel
Roger - Adam Pascal
Mark Cohen - Anthony Rapp
Joanne - Tracie Thoms