I was never able to see the musical "Rent" performed live on stage. This seems to be an ongoing trend with me. Every acclaimed musical that comes to town is always gone before I get a chance to see it. It took me almost a decade to finally catch "Phantom of the Opera" on stage, and then only because I was living in London and it was still playing there. So, I was happy to learn that a film version of the popular Broadway musical about a bunch of starving artists living in Manhattan's East Village would be made with many of the original cast members. It seemed a natural fit that Robert DeNiro would produce the project, a musical set on the mean streets of New York. Then more of the cast and crew were announced and my hopes began to deflate.
The film is directed by Chris Columbus ("Mrs. Doubtfire", "Harry Potter 1 and 2", "Bicentennial Man") and produced by Revolution Studios. Danger, Will Robinson. Danger. Columbus has made a series of amazingly successful films, but that doesn't mean they were necessarily good films. "Harry Potter 1 and 2" were good films, but as we now see, the films in the series can and are so much better now that other directors have taken over. He tends to make more `family friendly' broad comedies featuring a well-known comedian (i.e., Robin Williams) and a `hook' (i.e., a man poses as a nanny to be close to his children during the divorce). Columbus doesn't seem like a good match with the material. Revolution Studios has produced an amazingly long series of just plain terrible films, stretching across every genre and engulfing many good actors in the wake. Their most successful and critically acclaimed film was Ridley Scott's "Blackhawk Down", but one film does not make up for even a small portion of the series of duds they have perpetrated on the public. "America's Sweethearts" anyone?
"Rent", as a film, works, but much like the first two "Harry Potter" films, it doesn't transcend. I am doubtful that this musical will become a classic like the great musicals of the 40s and 50s, or even as well-remembered as the Disney animated musicals like "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Little Mermaid". But it is a good film.
My main difficulty is that a number of the songs are difficult to hear, songs featuring the character Roger (Adam Pascal). Roger, a former rising musician, now living with AIDS, the product of a drug habit, lives with Mark (Anthony Rapp), a budding documentary filmmaker, in a run-down loft in the lower East Side of Manhattan. Freezing, hungry and frustrated, their landlord turns the power off on Christmas Eve, leaving them, literally, in the dark. When Roger sings a song, either alone, or to another person, the background music takes on an edgier, rocker mood, drowning out a lot of his lyrics, making it difficult to understand him.
When any of the other characters are the centerpiece of a particular song or ballad, the accompanying music is much more musical-like, allowing the lyrics to be heard. It seems odd that one character's songs should be different from the rest and I am not sure why this was done, but it really detracts from the experience.
"Rent", written by Jonathan Larson, who died shortly before the play premiered on Broadway, is a modern day interpretation of Puccini's opera "La Boheme", which was also the loose inspiration for Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge". Now, I know what I am about to say will make a number of people mad, but "Moulin Rouge" was a much better film. Even with all of the excessive editing and the loud shouting, I was able to understand every word of the music, the acting, everything. In "Rent", this simply isn't the case. Please keep in mind I am only comparing the films. I'm sure watching "Rent" performed live on stage is a completely different experience.
The main difference between "Rent" and "Moulin Rouge" is that "Rent" was initially produced as an Operatic musical. From what I understand, the play was pretty much all music, all singing, and no spoken dialogue. Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steven Chbosky have added a little bit of dialogue throughout and this is not entirely successful. This dialogue may help establish the characters a little more, but it seems odd to hear so much singing and then have the characters speak a few lines of dialogue before returning to singing. The characters speaking in their normal voices takes you out of a world where everyone is singing all of the time, jarring you back into reality. Then when they start singing again, it takes a few moments to get back into the cadence of the song. It seems sloppy.
The new addition to the cast is Rosario Dawson. Six of the other seven members of the cast originated their roles in the Broadway production. Dawson plays Mimi Marquez, a heroin addicted exotic dancer, and gives perhaps the most believable performance. She is the newcomer to the group and as we witness her character through their eyes, we see a more fully realized arch for her character. They meet her, learn about her, deal with some of her problems and then become close to her. She becomes attracted to Roger, which adds gravitas to his character as the recovering addict has to help Mimi with her addiction, bringing back memories of his own problems. It is Dawson's best performance in a few years.
The other standout is Wilson Jermaine Heredia who plays the transvestite Angel. Wilson won a Tony for the same role on Broadway and he clearly knows his way around the character. He makes Angel more real than some of the other characters. At times, we feel empathy and sadness, and at others, we feel his joy for life. It is a real stand out performance.
The rest of the cast is good. Anthony Rapp plays Mark, the budding documentary filmmaker who always carries a camera around, recording events as they happen to him and his friends. All of this footage is for a documentary he is working on, which he ultimately finishes and shows to the collected group. The camera has no microphone, so he seems to be making a silent documentary, using a jumble of pictures and images to tell his story. The finished project seems like a bad student project from high school, but maybe that's just me.
Jesse L. Martin (TV's "Law and Order") plays Collins, a friend of Mark and Roger who returns to New York to teach and deal with his own case of AIDS. He meets Angel and they begin a relationship. His character is the least interesting to me, because he spends the majority of the film walking around smiling and laughing, because he is so happy in his relationship with Angel. His character experiences the least growth, making him the least interesting. Idina Menzel (who played the Wicked Witch in "Wicked" recently on Broadway), plays Maureen and does a good job with the role of the flirtatious Bi- former girlfriend of Mark.
Because this is a musical, you expect a certain amount of the film to take place in interior settings, but Columbus stages many of the outdoor scenes on what appear to be sets as well. With the advancement of technology, it seems like it would be fairly easy to shoot exteriors in real locations. But Columbus apparently doesn't agree. At one point Roger travels to Santa Fe, and these scenes are clearly shot outdoors in real locations. They stand out like a sore thumb because they are so different from the rest of the film. Clearly, that is the point, but they don't appear to belong to the same film.
"Rent" will clearly appeal to devoted fans of the stage version, but if you have never seen the stage play you may have some trouble accepting Columbus' interpretation of the material.