The most famous song of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Rent” asks how to measure a year, and the answer is through “love.” I’ve decided that if I’m disappointed with the Broadway show’s movie adaptation, it’s largely because I’m measuring it by my love for the original.
Written by the late Jonathan Larson and adapted for the screen, “Rent” is loosely based on the 19th century opera “La Boh?me” and focuses on the friendship, love and counter-culture spirit of seven New Yorkers in 1990, four of whom are living with AIDS.
The movie begins on Christmas Eve with unemployed filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) and musician Roger (Adam Pascal) facing eviction. A girl downstairs named Mimi asks Roger for a candle match, and he is instantly charmed by her (through song!). Meanwhile their former roommate Collins (Jesse L. Martin) is beaten and mugged (thankfully not through song) and finds help from Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a cheerful street drummer and amateur drag queen. Collins and Angel quickly fall in love, as do Roger and Mimi.
The movie features most of the original Broadway stars, with newcomers Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Tracie Thoms as pro-bono lawyer Joanne. The recognizable Taye Diggs appears as Benny, a former friend of the gang who sold out and became their homeless-hating landlord.
There are plenty of reasons to enjoy “Rent” right now. The musical wears its anti-corporate politics on its sleeve, and counters dark subject matter with touching, casual portrayals of gay and lesbian romance alongside straight couples. The rocky relationship between fierce, sometimes obnoxious Maureen and straightlaced Joanne (“I hate mess but I love you,” she sings) is actually expanded in the movie to include a marriage proposal, so their sexy, angry duet “Take Me or Leave Me” is set at their own engagement party. “Rent” has humor, tragedy and memorable music with profound lyrics like “The opposite of war isn’t peace – it’s creation,” and there’s no one in the cast who doesn’t have insane vocal talent and an energetic attitude on camera.
Sometimes the film’s visuals bring the show to life: Mimi giving her party-girl soliloquy “Out Tonight” while performing at a strip club, the Mark/Maureen/Joanne love triangle expressed in a tango dream sequence, Collins singing the seductive “Santa Fe” while dancing around a New York City subway.
But elsewhere, director Chris Columbus’ adaptation suffers from juggling gritty realism (heroin montage!) and overdone musical moments. Can someone explain why the title anthem “Rent” ends with an angry mass of Bohemians throwing flaming garbage out of their apartment windows? They started those fires to keep warm in the freezing December weather, but suddenly avoiding pneumonia seems less important than making a statement against The Man. Then there’s Roger and Mark’s number about their restlessness in America, as Roger heads west and sings on top of the Grand Canyon, hair blowing in the wind. It’s supposed to be majestic, but instead looks sort of like a Creed video.
Fans will notice some of Larson’s greatest counterpoints and harmonies have been cut, each song confined to a handful of characters in one location. Ironically, translating the one-set play to the limitless world of cinema makes it seem smaller. The film opens with the entire cast on a barren stage, singing directly at the audience – even Columbus knows that’s where they really belong.
In spite of these problems, “Rent” is worth seeing for the value of its music and message. It wasn’t written to be a movie, but for those who can’t make it to Broadway, this is the next best way of seeing a modern classic.