THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I have to admit that I was a little worried about the film version of Rent. Jonathan Larson’s musical is one of the most spectacular, powerful pieces of entertainment I’ve ever seen. I had two big concerns about its cinematic incarnation. First was the PG-13 rating; given the very mature nature of the play, I wondered if it was going to be watered down. Second, Chris Columbus was chosen to be the director. I have nothing against Columbus per se, except that his movies (Mrs. Doubtfire, the first two Harry Potter flicks) have an undeniable middle-of-the-road quality that seemed directly at odds with the material. (Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee or Chicago’s Rob Marshall seemed like much more appropriate candidates.) Columbus, I feared, would turn Rent into a sappy, sentimental tear-jerker along the lines of his tepid Stepmom.

Happily, the subject matter hasn’t been watered down too much, and Columbus does a respectable job of not sentimentalizing the material. In fact, he shows a restraint that has heretofore been mostly absent in his work. That said, Rent still loses a little something in translation. It’s a good movie, but the play makes a much bigger impact.

Set in 1989, the story focuses on a group of struggling young bohemian artists living in near-poverty and dealing with the onset of the AIDS crisis. Mark (Anthony Rapp) is a wannabe filmmaker documenting the life of his friends. His ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel) has left him – for a woman named Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Mark’s roommate Roger (Adam Pascal) is an aspiring rock musician who contracted HIV through intravenous drug use. Roger meets an exotic dancer named Mimi (Rosario Dawson), but is afraid to go too far in the relationship because of his disease.

Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) once shared the loft with Roger and Mark. He meets and falls in love with a drag queen named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) who is dying of AIDS. All these characters cherish the bohemian lifestyle. One of their own – Benjamin (Taye Diggs) – has committed the ultimate sin: he’s become establishment. For a long time, Ben has let everyone live in the building basically for free, but his plan to erect an arts center means that he has to start collecting money from those who have none.

The creator of “Rent” was Jonathan Larson, who died suddenly right before the play opened. Nevertheless, the arrival of “Rent” set off a shock wave on Broadway. Here was a musical that defied convention. It had a rock band instead of an orchestra, and it dealt with themes that one wouldn’t typically expect to see covered in a play. “Rent” snagged both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize, quickly becoming a sensation.

Smartly, Columbus has assembled most of the original Broadway cast. (Most notably, Rosario Dawson replaces Daphne Rubin-Vega.) These actors know the material intimately and, more importantly, they have obvious passion for it. That quality adds something crucial to the movie. Hiring a brand new cast would have required trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice; hiring the original cast means that the lightning is already in the bottle. It’s true that the actors are now a little older than their characters are supposed to be, but it’s an acceptable trade-off because they created these characters. The sheer enthusiasm they bring makes Rent appealing.

If there’s a flaw here, it’s that the play relied on an immediate, in-your-face energy that the film can’t quite reproduce. Seeing everything unfold right in front of your eyes has a different effect than seeing it on a screen, with changing camera angles and editing. For example, I remember the final number of the play, where Mark switches on a projector and his film is shown all around the venue: on the set, on the walls, etc. This happens while the cast pounds out their last song. Slowly everything fades into darkness until the projector shuts off. It’s one of those moments that put a lump in your throat. The ending to the movie is poignant in theme, but it doesn’t give you the chills because you aren’t there in the moment. A big part of “Rent”’s appeal on stage is that it puts you squarely in the moment.

If you haven’t seen the play, then the film may come as a revelation to you. If you did see the play, then Rent may lose a little bit of its power on the screen. Some fans may not be able to live with that, but I can. Here you have a talented, enthusiastic cast performing some of the greatest and most inventive show tunes ever written. Chris Columbus mostly lets the musical numbers speak for themselves; he wisely trusts the material. Rent may not be the same transformative experience on film as it was on the stage, but Jonathan Larson’s creation is strong enough to withstand a shift in mediums with plenty of its appeal still intact.

( out of four)

Rent is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving drugs and sexuality, and for some strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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