As someone living la vie Boheme, I was skeptical about Rent. For one thing, my roommates and I have bounced rent checks, and we've never danced around the damned kitchen singing about it. No matter how many times the cast sings "we're not gonna pay," someone eventually will. I was afraid it might be the audience.
Surprisingly, the film brings to Jonathan Larson's musical something the live stage performance couldn't: context. No matter how good a set designer is, replicating the grungy East Village is a difficult undertaking. The live version opted for minimalism in the face of this dilemma, which was smart, but still dissatisfying. The film version of Rent accomplishes what the staged version left to the imagination. Finally, viewers can see and smell pre-gentrified, urine-soaked, urchin-cluttered Avenue A. Besides this enriching feature, the film brings something else you won't get on Broadway: facial expressions. From even the best seat in the house, you won't be able to see every twitch on an actor's face or hear every shift in intonation in his or her voice.
Apart from these enhancements, the film remains closely linked to the live version. Something weird happens when Hollywood makes a musical as "real" as possible. Serious contemporary issues seem cheapened by harmonization and fancy footwork.
That said, I admit I fogged up when Angel died. However, that also seems cheap. It's always gut-wrenching when the young and beautiful die, but rarely does terminal illness kill in such a quick and beatific way. Angel's death is tortuous, because the character is delivered impeccably by the talented Wilson Jermaine Heredia, whose sweet, peppy optimism seems as natural as it is breathtaking. Jesse L. Martin, Angel's lover Tom Collins, also delivers a good performance, but I've been poisoned by thousands of episodes of Law & Order, and was constantly expecting Lenny Briscoe to round the corner and say, "Hey, Ed, who's the drag queen?"
During Taye Diggs' brief appearances, he hardly creates the hate-able sell-out Benny, but who can blame him? How threatening can an evil villain be, when constantly forced to sing and dance (think drunken Miss Hannigan from Annie). Anthony Rapp is the perfect Mark, and Tracie Thoms is the perfect Joanne. Those characters are more grounded than others, and, surely, not as difficult to pull off as Maureen. However, Idina Menzel rocked as the wild woman, and her performance art/protest rally is captivating . Mimi (Rosario Dawson) and Roger (Adam Pascal) made believable tragic lovers, though the real tragedy may just have been their hair -- yikes! Oh, please, don't let the Bon Jovi look come back.
For fans of musicals, the most important elements are captured by this film. The singing and dancing are flawless, and -- if that's your thing -- good reasons to see Rent. Apparently, that's a lot of people's thing, because people actually clapped in the theater as if this were a real live performance. Psst -- they can't hear you.
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