The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, October 07, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Rent

Originally published 12/6/05
Full review behind the jump


: Chris Columbus
: Steve Chbosky, based on the musical by Jonathan Larson
: Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, Mark Radcliffe, Robert DeNiro, Jane Rosenthal
: Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Rosario Dawson, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, Tracie Thoms, Taye Diggs

, the rock opera which transplanted the story of Puccini’s La Boheme into the world of New York’s East Village circa 1989/90, had its world premiere in February of 1996, less than a month after the tragic death of its author, Jonathan Larson, at the age of 35. It moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway in April and became a sensation – a Pulitzer-and-Tony-winning booster shot for New York’s theatre world. At the time I was finishing up my freshman year in the theatre department at Bradley University, and I can’t remember the exact moment Rent penetrated, but it was a constant companion for years afterwards.

Although I never saw the show, and can’t say I got as swept up as those around me, its soundtrack was ubiquitous – in the dressing room before curtain, in the scene shop as we sawed and painted. I remember car trips in single-digit weather to McDonald’s at 2:30 in the morning,
La Vie Boheme blasting out of the speakers and amplified by kids who knew every word to sing along. The effect was something you see rarely but never forget – people felt rapture at discovering this show. It meant something profound to them, about youthful rebellion and living for the moment and bringing truth and beauty into the world. When something moves you like that, that ecstasy lifts you over traditional appraisal – any imperfections don’t matter.

What a difference a decade makes. New York City has gotten a facelift. Homosexuality is less taboo in mainstream art. AIDS in America is no longer the death sentence many saw it as. I’ve had ten years of my own drinking and sex and late nights and poverty and creation and pretension and depression. And
Rent has evolved from raucous upstart to worldwide phenomenon, money-minting industry, and finally, expensive Hollywood movie helmed by the thoroughly safe-and-sane Chris Columbus (Bicentennial Man and the first two Harry Potter films). It’s a scrubbed adaptation, prettified for a PG-13 rating and produced with such soapy perfection that you will not find one note or hair out of place, not one camera angle carelessly composed, not one speaker hiss or guitar squawk audible to disturb its “faithful”, and spiritless, performance of this once-dangerous work.

Speaking of a decade’s difference, its original cast has aged into their mid-30’s. And in the life of any person, particularly one with artistic ambition, there’s a big difference between your 20’s and your 30’s. So while it could be seen as appropriate tribute to bring back six of the eight Broadway leads (Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms are new to the ensemble and earn their stripes), the camera cannot conceal the looser skin, the extra lines. They’re mouthing the words of rock-and-roll revolution, but their faces and bodies now work against their sincerity.

The story covers a year in the loosely-connected lives of eight youths living in the vibrant scrum of the Village. Mark (Anthony Rapp) is a budding filmmaker allergic to any suggestion he find a way to make money off of it. His roommate, the perpetually-surly Roger (Adam Pascal), once showed promise fronting a rock band but has moped unproductively in his apartment since he and his girlfriend got HIV from sharing heroin needles and she killed herself. That sort of thing puts you in a funk, but he still hopes to write “one great song” before he goes – when he does, it’s less stirring than the song he sang about wanting to write that song, which is like Tenacious D’s “Tribute” but in reverse.

Half of the lead characters are HIV-positive, which is a far more urgent deadline to them than the demands for rent money being made by Benny (Taye Diggs), a former friend and roommate who married up and now wants to demolish the neighborhood and replace it with a digital entertainment studio. Perhaps what made me rapture-immune was that I’m not unsympathetic to his suggestion that they should spend less-time navel-gazing and consider getting jobs, since they haven’t paid him anything this year and proudly declare they won’t pay anything next year, either. In a way the disease freezes characters like the educated anarchist Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and his lover, drumming drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) in their reckless youth – there is no dreaming or planning for tomorrow when there is no tomorrow.

But these are some of the cleanest and sexiest terminally-ill drug addicts you’ll ever meet. Even the withdrawal throes of the exotic dancer Mimi (Dawson), who longs for Roger and he for her in spite of his disgust with her habits, are lit rock-video moody. The musical always walked the fine line between capturing the effect drugs and disease had on the creative community and glamorizing/exploiting it. Mark is an outsider even among his friends – as he circles an AIDS support group winding his camera, you can almost sense that he feels less authentic for not being in that circle too.

This version falls off that fine line – all the lavishly-created scuzzy loft spaces and expensively trash-strewn streets, all the safe and unimaginative staging of the songs, speaks to the kind of corporate product the show’s characters rail against, and thus becomes a hollow celebration, heartstring-tugging death included, of some hazy centrist notion of Freedom© and Art©. The daffy performance-art protest put together by the flirtatious whirlwind Maureen (Idina Menzel), Mark’s ex-girlfriend, now falling in with lawyer Joanne (Thoms) is the only retention of the messy spirit that birthed this enterprise long ago.

There are genuinely stirring moments – the movie takes to real New York streets so Angel and Collins can declare their love in “I’ll Cover You”, it feels shaky and delightful and alive and the contrast with the rest of the movie’s pedestrian approach is never more apparent. And "La Vie Boheme" still provides those anthemic chills.

But however much director Columbus might love this material, his broad aesthetic drags down every part of the show, exposing flaws it could formerly surge past – the ungainly rhymes stick out more, ditto the wandering 2nd half, and we get little opportunity to care about these people beyond their personality types. Maybe Rent just waited too long to reach the big screen; it got noticed for unconventional daring, but the material’s too comfortable in its success. I can’t define how it could have been re-configured for cinematic life, but I think that a more radical approach would have shown deeper respect.

It’s not that there aren’t changes. Sometimes the characters speak lines that were sung before, sometimes (not often enough, given that we have Hollywood-sized resources) the songs lift us into fantasy, sometimes not. Sometimes the characters dance, sometimes they just do catwalk strides down long hallways behind a Steadicam. What I lack is any sense that there’s a coherent guiding principal to these decisions, just the agreement of the committee. And committees are not rock 'n roll.


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