Set in New York City's gritty East Village, the revolutionary rock opera RENT tells the story of a group of bohemians struggling to live and pay their rent. "Measuring their lives in love," these starving artists strive for success and acceptance while enduring the obstacles of poverty, illness and the AIDS epidemic. RENT is based on Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical, one of the longest running shows on Broadway. The raw and riveting musical stars Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp and Tracie Thoms and is directed by Chris Columbus.
, the show that in 1996 gave voice to a Broadway generation, has finally become an energetic, passionate, and touching movie musical. Based loosely on Puccini's La Bohème
, it focuses on the year in the life of a group of friends in New York's East Village--"bohemians" who live carefree lives of art, music, sex, and drugs. Well, carefree until Mark, an aspiring filmmaker (Anthony Rapp), and Roger, an aspiring songwriter (Adam Pascal), find out they owe a year's rent to Benny (Taye Diggs), a former friend who had promised them free residence when he married the landlord's daughter. Roger has also attracted the attention of his downstairs neighbor, Mimi (Rosario Dawson), while Mark's former girlfriend, Maureen (Idina Menzel), has found a new romance in a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Philosophy professor Tom (Jesse L. Martin) finds his soul mate in drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). But because this is the late-'80s, the threat of AIDS is always present.
The remarkable thing about Rent the movie is that nearly 10 years after the show debuted on Broadway, six of the eight principals return in the roles they originated. They're a bit older than would be ideal for their characters, but they do have the advantage of having learned the show directly from creator Jonathan Larson (who died of an aortic aneurysm while the show was in previews), plus they started young--we're not exactly talking Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford here. Alongside a polished performance like Rapp's--sometimes observer-commentator, sometimes participant in two of the score's showstoppers, "The Tango Maureen" and "La Vie Boheme"--the two new additions (Thoms in place of Fredi Walker, Dawson in place of the edgier Daphne Rubin-Vega) slip comfortably into the ensemble; the pivotal Dawson makes a seductive case as Mimi when she tempts Roger in the mesmerizing "Light My Candle" or burns up the stage of the Catscratch Club in "Out Tonight." Moviegoers who have an aversion to people who break into song while walking down the street probably won't have their minds changed by Rent (even if they are singing rock songs), and the gritty subject matter and lack of big-name stars make it unlikely to cross over to general audiences the way Chicago did. But fans of musicals should find "Seasons of Love" as stirring as ever, and the show's passionate admirers--the "Rentheads"--probably couldn't have wished for a more sympathetic director than Rent fan Chris Columbus, or a more faithful representation of the show they love. --David Horiuchi
On the DVD
Three powerful musical numbers cut from the final film are the highlight of the two-disc DVD. In the aftermath of the funeral scene, Anthony Rapp sings "Halloween," and he, Adam Pascal, and Rosario Dawson share "Goodbye Love" (both songs were in the stage version). Then in an alternate ending, the cast finishes "No Day But Today" on the bare stage on which the film began. There are worthwhile arguments for why these scenes were cut or replaced, so it's fortunate that the DVD lets us see these at all. Those musical numbers have optional commentary by director Chris Columbus, Rapp, and Pascal (two other cut scenes have no commentary), including one funny moment in which Rapp explains in great detail the technical challenge of shooting "Halloween" only to have Columbus say, "Yeah, but I don't know if that's the take we used." The three also provide commentary on the film itself, with Columbus discussing various decisions, criticizing the critics, and marveling "I still don't know how we got the PG-13," and Rapp and Pascal occasionally recalling differences in the stage version.
The other whopper of a feature is No Day But Today, a nearly two-hour documentary that uses video clips, still photographs, and interviews with family and friends to celebrate the short life of Jonathan Larson and his creation. Topics include his early interest in musical theater ("I want to write the Hair for the '90s."), the support of Stephen Sondheim, the impact of the AIDS epidemic, the long and difficult road of Rent (casting the show, Larson learning to collaborate, the transfer to a Broadway stage, and the Rentheads), and Larson's tragic death. The last 20 minutes covers the making of the film, director Chris Columbus, the decision to rely on most of the original cast (the only two principals who didn't appear in the movie, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Fredi Walker-Browne, are interviewed in earlier segments, but only mentioned in passing here), recording sessions, and location shooting. If the movie of Rent was a tribute to Jonathan Larson, the DVD is all that and more, a moving and incredibly detailed look at an extraordinary talent whom the world lost far too soon. --David Horiuchi