There are times when the entertainment business makes absolutely no sense to me. Ever since I saw Chris Columbus's fantastic film version of "Rent," one question has been bugging me: How can "Rent" win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book, then have an inspired film version featuring most of the original stage performers not have similar success with the film-going public, critics, and awards committees?
I haven't seen the musical on or off Broadway, but "Rent" the film is unforgettable. The music is soaring, the characters are warm and real, and the subject matter—Bohemian life on the Lower East Side during the AIDS epidemic of the '80s—is as naturally tragic as any of the plots that typically drive operas and serious musicals. But the funny thing is, despite the drug use, the poverty, the artistic struggles, the squalor, and the deaths (there are three), "Rent" somehow manages an emotional and intellectual bottom line that's as feel-good triumphant as it is defiant. Playwright Jonathan Larson said he wanted to make the "Hair" for the '90s, but I think he's done much better than that. Like Baz Luhrmann, he's managed to stretch the genre while also capturing the heart and soul of music theater.
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons that the film has such great intensity, integrity, and cast chemistry is that six of the eight principals were from the original stage production. They remember what it was like to believe in a dream and how it felt to have their beloved playwright die the night before the musical was to finally open off-Broadway—just 10 days before his 36th birthday. His death from an aortic aneurysm, we learn on a "making of" feature that's the best I've seen, made the cast realize that "Rent" was as much about Larson as it was his Bohemian friends who had died of AIDS. This was his story, his baby, and the DVD makes it clear with a long and substantial documentary, "No Day But Today," that the film "Rent" and all the extras on this two-disc release are part of an ongoing tribute to the affable, quirky, and inspired young writer and composer. The cast gave it everything they had that first performance after Larson's death, and they have quite a reunion in the film version, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of "Rent."
Original cast members Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, and Anthony Rapp are brilliant in the film version—as talented and energetic a group of young actors, singers, and dancers as you'll find. And they welcomed newcomers Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms into the fold with such open arms that it would be impossible for someone watching "Rent" for the first time to decide which two actors were new to their roles.
Five-hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes. How do you figure a last year on earth? The answer, as the lyrics of "Seasons of Love" remind us, isn't quantity, but quality. You measure it with love.
Columbus moved the high-profile second-act anthem, "Seasons of Love," to the beginning of the film version to help audiences get used to actors singing. It was the only song that wasn't tied to narrative, he observed. As the eight main characters stand in a line onstage, singing in individual spotlights in unison, harmony, and jazz-rift solos, it instantly strikes you how pure their voices are and how "Fame"-like beautiful these people are. But even that isn't enough to prepare you for the sung lines that are wedged right in the middle of every action and interaction. Frankly, it's hard not to crack a smile when you see Rapp as Mark, an aspiring young filmmaker, singing as he bicycles in fast traffic while, moments later, his friend Collins (Martin) is mugged in the street and, still wobbly, also breaks into song. But by the end of the title song and first big production number, when the windows of every half-gutted apartment along a street marked for new development are filled with burning copies of eviction notices, and it looks a lot like a rock concert lit with Bic lighters, you're ready to accept that almost every line in the film will be sung, rather than spoken.
Columbus added more spoken dialogue in spots, but thankfully not too much, because it's Larson's wonderful transformation of the operatic recitative—those lines of dialogue that are sung without particular meter or time—that's really one of the great strengths of "Rent." Whether it's the cross-dressing Angel (Heredia) and his soon-to-be lover Collins (Martin) sharing with each other that they're HIV-positive in "I Should Tell You," or wannabe musician Roger (Pascal) and exotic-dancer/junkie Mimi (Dawson) engaged in a vocal tango, Larson and his actors are able to make beautiful music out of the most ordinary exchanges. Example?
"Sorry 'bout your friend"
"Would you light my candle?"
"Oh, the wax."
or, later in "Light My Candle," when Mimi is talking about how she dances at the Cat Scratch Club and sings "They say I have the best ass on 14th Street," Roger sings back, "They used to tie you up." "It's a living," she sings back. "I hear Spike Lee's shootin' down the street," he sings in a fun allusion, since Lee was among those first considered to direct the film version of "Rent," and she sings, "Bah humbug." Isolate any of those lines and they just don't work. But put them together with some incredibly contagious music and suddenly you have a rock version of recitatives that's as good as I've seen. Some musicals are a collection of songs that are memorable, strung together with narrative and spoken lines. But "Rent" relies more on those sung-lines, those recitatives, more than any musical in recent memory aside from "Evita." And frankly, it does the best job. This film is awash with memorable music, though by the end of it most people would be hard-pressed to remember any of the songs except for the catchy "Seasons of Love." Later, you remember situations and catch-phrases—members of an AIDS support group singing "Will I Lose My Dignity," or watch Angel and Collins express their love for each other in "I'll Cover You."
The relationships in this story are totally believable. "Brokeback Mountain" got all the press, but I saw little chemistry in that film between the two men who were supposed to be in love with each other. But in "Rent," when Angel and Collins look at each other and kiss, you can feel the love and, we learn in the commentary, would have also seen the saliva as the men broke off their kiss if they didn't edit it out, thinking it might be a bit much for audiences. But these characters love life so much that to not love them in return almost seems like an affront to life itself.
There is much to see in "Rent," and much which will seem new with every viewing. Based in part on Puccini's opera, "La Boheme" (The Bohemians), "Rent" follows the same basic path, but because it's also based on Larson's own Bohemian life in the '80s in New York City and on the lives of his struggling artist friends, "Rent" takes on a much greater fullness and complexity. Add allusions, now, to the play and to various inside jokes and tributes that you hear about on the extras, and "Rent" becomes even more multi-faceted. But for all its content, it's the music itself and the way the characters "tango" with each other and those sung lines that makes the film soar. Parents be warned that the film is rated PG-13 for "mature thematic material including drugs and sexuality and for some strong language." But the messages are just as strong, so you'll need to weigh those when deciding whether your kids can handle it.
Video: "Rent" is mastered in High Definition and presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen. The quality is superb, with plenty of moments when the frames could easily have appeared more washed-out because of high light or grainy because of low or nighttime scenes. But there's hardly any grain, and the colors, despite an appropriately subtle palette, still have good saturation.
Audio: The audio is English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, and as with the video it's really quite wonderful. Subtitles are in English and French.
Extras: The feature-length documentary is as moving as the film itself. It's a powerful reminiscence of how Larson struggled to make it as a writer and how he connected with people. The focus is on the playwright, but the emotion that's evident in his parents, sister, and those who worked with him is strong and right there on the surface, even 10 years after his death. As I said, it's the best making-of feature I've ever seen.
The commentary with Columbus and two of his actors—Rapp and Pascal—is also quite good. Columbus was on the phone in San Francisco, while the actors were on the line in New York. But there's no disconnect. Far from it, these three have great chemistry and feel free to crack jokes with each other—sometimes, some pretty hilarious and surprising ones. When Columbus laments a double standard and says how he doesn't understand why Woody Allen does the same sort of thing and gets praised for it and he does it and gets snubbed or criticized, one of the young actors quips, "That's because Chris didn't leave his wife and marry his daughter." There's some hot stuff on this commentary, and, for people who want to know more about how the film differs from the play, there's plenty of exposition pointing out scenes that were added or altered. Rounding out the extras are several deleted scenes, two of them containing songs that really aren't as interesting as the ones that Columbus kept in the film.
Bottom Line: Columbus filmed on real subway cars, on real rooftops, and in real abandoned apartment buildings where squatters lived. He used most of the original cast and stayed pretty faithful to the stage play. That sense of realism and authenticity provides just the right environment for an ensemble to reunite . . . and reignite. Though there are moments such as a riot that's shown onstage rather than off, and times near the end when spoken lines take up too much space and the film seems suddenly less vibrant, almost all musicals sag somewhere in the second half. "Rent" may not be perfect, but it's a moving, blockbuster of a musical that comes damned close.