"Rent" is one of the best film musicals in years -- exuberant, sexy and life affirming in equal measure. Jonathan Larson's 1996 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical, based upon Puccini's opera "La Boheme", makes an electrifying move to the screen as director Chris Columbus and choreographer Keith Young push the singing and dancing out into New York streets and subways.
Stylized action in real locations doesn't always work in movies, but it does here perhaps because six of the eight actor-performers from the original Broadway show return for the movie version. These actors know their roles down to the grit in their fingernails, so the film feels loose and real, unfettered by a proscenium and opened up in an almost spiritual way.
"Chicago" proved that American audiences can still, on occasion, embrace a genre that has largely gone out of style. But what will mainstream audiences make of a musical about AIDS, drug addiction, homelessness and drag queens? "Rent" will be strong in major markets but needs crackerjack marketing to draw a broad young audience to the film.
"Rent", which Larson, its author and composer, did not live to see became a worldwide success, focuses on a group of impoverished young artists and musicians, struggling to survive in New York's East Village neighborhood in the 1980s under the shadow of AIDS. "Rent" shares with "La Boheme" an affirmation of the bohemian lifestyle, of creativity and art over anything as mundane as earning a living or paying the rent.
The reason, of course, is these lives might be short. Drugs and HIV inflict several characters. Each feels a pressing need to create a legacy, one in which whom you love is at least important as what you create. You live your art -- and life -- with a metaphorical gun to your head.
Roger (Adam Pascal) is a handsome yet melancholy songwriter coming off a long bout with heroin. Downstairs neighbor Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a spectacularly beautiful exotic dancer, has a definite eye for Roger, but he is emotionally shut down and understandably wary of her drug habit. What eventually brings them together, for a moment at least, is the realization that both are HIV-positive.
Roger's roommate Mark (Anthony Rapp), a struggling filmmaker, starts to document life around him, starting with his circle of friends. He also carries the torch for mercurial performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), who left him for -- the indignity of it all -- a woman, Harvard-trained attorney Joanne (Tracie Thoms).
Returning to the circle of friends is Tom Jesse L. Martin), a former professor and computer whiz who is jobless. Moments after getting mugged outside his former digs, Tom meets the love of his life, Angel Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen street musician. These two also are HIV-positive.
The outsider of the group is Benjamin Coffin III (Taye Diggs). Benny married the landlord's daughter and, despite a vow to keep his former roommates in the loft rent-free, has become the "enemy," a capitalist who wants to transform the 'hood by evicting everyone and building a headquarters for a cyberspace enterprise.
The threat of eviction ostensibly gives the story its dramatic impetus: Maureen means to stage a one-woman show in protest, Benny pressures Roger and Mark to stop her and so on. But the real dramatic propulsion comes from love. Tom and Angel fall hard for one another and revel in that love as their time together will be short. Mimi and Roger share an equally profound passion, but Roger refuses to acknowledge it. Mark still pines for Maureen, whose open behavior with men and women sparks doubt and jealousy in Joanne.
The film spills out of the cold-water lofts into nearby streets, bars, restaurants, performance spaces and churches in a celebration of the bohemian life. Stephen Goldblatt's camera is constantly in motion, and Young's dances have a athletic dynamism that energizes the screen. Some dialogue has been added in Steve Chbosky's adaptation, but like the stage show the story is told in musical numbers that flow smoothly one into another. Meanwhile, Larson's music honors a host of traditions, ranging from rock and blues to gospel, soul and even tango.
Columbus managed the complicated logistics of the first two "Harry Potter" movies but never put his own stamp on those huge productions. Something in "Rent", though, hooked him emotionally for the movie represents his best work -- confident of the material inherited from Larson, true to that legacy yet willing to make changes and expand the possibilities for the screen.
Nearly every big movie has its set pieces around which the film develops, but "Rent" is all set pieces. Each requires ingenuity and sweat to get the best out of a super-talented cast. That each succeeds on its own terms yet flows together so easily is a tribute to Columbus' passion for the material.
Howard Cummings' interior sets, the location work, Aggie Guerard Rodgers' vibrant costumes, the terrific dances and adventurous cinematography all add up to pure pleasure.
Revolution Studios presents in association with 1492 Pictures a Tribeca production
Director: Chris Columbus
Screenwriter: Steve Chbosky
Based on the play by: Jonathan Larson
Director of photography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer: Howard Cummings
Music and lyrics: Jonathan Larson
Choreographer: Keith Young
Costumes: Aggie Guerard Rodgers
Editor: Richard Pearson
Mimi: Rosario Dawson
Benny: Taye Diggs
Angel: Wilson Jermaine Heredia
Tom: Jesse L. Martin
Maureen: Idina Menzel
Roger: Adam Pascal
Mark: Anthony Rapp
Joanne: Tracie Thoms
MPAA rating PG-13
Running time -- 135 minutes
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