My immediate reaction upon exiting the long-in-the-works film adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson's award-winning stage musical Rent was that I liked it--not a surprise, considering that I would be one of those fans labeled a "Renthead." But that initial feeling soon made way for a bigger realization: that my enjoyment of the film had more to do with it being a lasting document of Larson's music and the performances of most of the original 1996 Broadway cast than as an actual, standalone work of drama in its own right--and the fault of that lies with the film's director, Chris Columbus.
Columbus, whose name has become synonymous with more cuddly, family-friendly entertainments such as Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter films, would initially sound a completely odd if not flat out wrong choice for Larson's gritty, La Bohème-inspired tale of young artists struggling with poverty, disease, death, and love in New York's East Village. What earned him benefit of the doubt with the fan following is the fact that Columbus himself is a huge fan of the show, which is most prominently reflected in his casting choices. While he did go the traditional stage-to-screen route and cast a recognizable film name--Rosario Dawson--in one key role (that of junkie stripper Mimi Marquez) and also put in a fresh face (Tracie Thoms) in another (no-nonsense lawyer Joanne Jefferson), the remaining six principal roles are filled by their original stage portrayers: angst-ridden, AIDS-stricken rocker Roger Davis (Adam Pascal); his best friend and roommate, would-be documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp); their former roommate, HIV-positive teacher Thomas B. Collins (Jesse L. Martin); Mark's ex, brash performance artist Maureen Johnson (Idina Menzel); former bohemian and now arrogant landlord Benjamin "Benny" Coffin III (Taye Diggs); and Angel Dumott Schunard (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), the AIDS-suffering, cross-dressing street drummer who wins Collins's heart and inspires the souls of everyone. This was a bold and rather risky move from a commercial perspective, but it's one that pays off handsomely as they indeed inhabit their roles in a way bigger, more recognizable stars (in either the film or music arenas) never quite could, given their history with the roles--not to mention having worked directly with Larson himself before his untimely passing.
Larson's death prior to the show's first Off-Broadway preview in 1996 highlights an important fact to keep in mind about the stage incarnation: it was a work in progress, and without its creator around to make further massages and tweaks (as is commonly the case with any running stage production), it will remain so. Make no mistake, though, what Larson and stage director Michael Greif did get done is remarkably accomplished. Not for nothing did the show make an almost immediate transfer to Broadway and earn acclaim and, most famously, that fiercely devoted following of Rentheads. The characters were memorable and relatable, and they were lent that added bit of life by those passionate original portrayers; but above all there was that terrific Larson score, which blended contemporary pop, rock, R&B, and gospel sounds into an infectious, powerful whole. The music and the voices of the cast were enough to power the show over the narrative deficiencies of Larson's book; issues of clarity were eventually addressed by the addition of a chart mapping the characters' tangled relationships in the Playbill program for every live production. And so Rent, for all of its strong innate virtues, is not so much a work one would want to transfer directly to screen so much as use it as a jumping-off point for even more fulfilling heights, as in addition to the thin plot leaving room for elaboration and clarification, Greif's stripped-down, tables-and-chairs staging gives nearly carte blanche to a filmmaker's imagination, opening the door to delve deeper into the details of the hopeful characters and their hopeless world, of its uncertain time and dangerous place.
For a little while, Columbus appears to be on to something, achieving a balance that both satisfactorily opens up the material for the film world and maintains certain visual touchstones from the original production. After turning the show's most recognizable song, the out-of-character and -narrative act two opener "Seasons of Love," into a mood-setting main title sequence that pretty much takes Greif's "line up and sing the song" staging verbatim, the film proper takes off like a rocket with the propulsive title song. The squalor of New York's East Village circa 1989 and the plight of its starving artists struggling with addiction, AIDS, and paying the rent is vividly brought to life in the expanded cinema space; and Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography, Richard Pearson's editing, Rob Cavallo's amped-up arrangement of Larson's already-forceful melody, and the game cast led by Rapp and Pascal combine to create an exciting opener that manages to capture if not surpass the electricity of the number when performed onstage. The energy remains largely unfettered as Columbus and credited screenwriter Stephen Chbosky begin to trace the fateful events that occur during three Christmastime nights (expanded from the musical's act one Christmas Eve timeframe). Benny, who has grand redevelopment plans for the run-down neighborhood, threatens eviction unless he either receives the back rent or Roger and Mark stop a protest piece to be performed by Maureen. Collins's return home from MIT is thwarted by muggers, but he is soon taken into care by the aptly named Angel. Mimi, Roger and Mark's heretofore unnoticed downstairs neighbor, makes a sultry play for Roger, withdrawn from both the world and his own feelings following the death of his girlfriend April. Mark is forced to deal with his lingering feelings for Maureen--and her new flame, Joanne--head-on when the equipment for her protest performance breaks down.
This may sound like a jumble of soap opera, and to some extent it is, but the set-up plays a bit more clearly here than it did on stage as Columbus and Chbosky do some slight re-ordering of songs and convert much of the sung recitative into often expanded spoken dialogue. The latter may be especially jolting for fans, particularly since a number of rhymes still remain, albeit delivered in such a manner so as not to draw attention to them. The driving force in keeping the audience involved, though, is Larson's music and the cast's performances of it, and Columbus is able to support both with some inspired but faithful staging. Roger and Mimi's flirty first meeting duet "Light My Candle" is enhanced by some unexpected camera angles in Roger and Mark's spacious yet bizarrely cramped loft; and "Tango: Maureen," Mark and Joanne's contentious pas de deux about the subtle manipulations of the woman they both love, is a textbook example of how a stage-to-screen number can be faithful to its live counterpart yet opened up for cinema in a way that also enhances the story--namely, with the addition of a fantasy tango interlude that offers an earlier-than-stage-norm intro to Maureen.
So it is all the more disappointing that after a solid 25 minutes or so of exceeding anyone's most generous expectations, Columbus indeed drops the ball--and at what is perhaps the worst possible moment. After making an exuberant and truly memorable movie moment out of Mimi's rock-out anthem "Out Tonight," in which Mimi ultimately throws herself at a disinterested Roger (and Dawson truly, fully makes the part her own), Columbus gets his first major dramatic test with their ensuing argument number, "Another Day." One of the more overlooked songs in the score, "Another Day" exemplifies Larson's genius as it all at once a key plot pivot, a great character illumination piece, and a terrifically catchy and powerful pop/rock duet, and on the stage Greif milks it for all its worth musically and--above else--dramatically. The tensions between an incensed Roger and a gently pleading but increasingly frustrated Mimi gradually escalate before exploding into an epic climax of discomfort with both steadfastly standing their ground, each singing their opposing melody lines literally in each other's faces. Granted, to directly transfer this confrontation, set entirely in Roger's apartment, would be a bit claustrophobic and perhaps too theatrically "big" for film (though that enclosed quality actually makes it all the more effectively tense), but Columbus opens up the sequence not only to the detriment of the drama but also character. By mid-song, not only is Mimi already chased out of Roger's apartment, she is physically out of the building, so the big angry climax of the song finds Roger yelling from his fire escape with Mimi yelling at him from the street below. The otherwise headstrong Mimi gives up way too easily now, not to mention it makes little sense for Roger to go out to the fire escape to continue the argument when he's already driven her out. Worst of all, though, with the pair's faces unable to share the same frame, the urgency and intensity is lost, as is what made the number such an indelible dramatic moment--its downright ugliness.
This misstep turns out to be symptomatic of a larger problem, which is how the (in)famously warm-'n-fuzzy Columbus himself is a bit chased away by the darker elements of Larson's source material, and as such the film isn't quite as impactful as it could--and should--have been. While the show's overriding message is one of inspiration and empowerment, and there are more than a few moments of humor and infectious vitality (particularly in the first half), one of the big keys to the show's power (and, hence, enduring success and devoted fan following) is how it realistically, relatably runs the emotional gamut in this year-long stretch with these characters. The audience grows to know and love the characters during the magical peak that is this one holiday season before the rest of the year sends stark reality crashing back in. Columbus puts in an effectively ominous slow-motion pan of the gang at their happiest at the end of "La Vie Boheme," almost as if to prime one for the depths that will be plumbed in the second half. However, a very affecting montage set to the somber Mimi/Roger duet "Without You"--during which, among other things, Mimi's addiction escalates and her health deteriorates--is about as dark as it gets. Act two always runs shorter than the first on the stage, but here the balance is even more tilted, with the act one happenings occupying 90 of the film's 135 minutes, and as such some much needed opportunities for elaboration are not taken up; for instance, one crucial plot development/revelation that was already undernourished on stage--a past romantic connection between two of the characters--is even more glazed over here to the point of being a contrived afterthought. Two critical cuts were made late in the editing process (in fact, the deleted material still appears on the soundtrack album, which was released two months before the film's opening), and the film indeed suffers for it, and not necessarily from a fanatical purist argument either; with the loss of this material, which fleshes out the crises that arise and intensify within the circle in the wake of a tragedy, the group's painful rock-bottom moments feel rushed through, thus shortchanging any satisfaction that comes with their equally hasty resolutions. We get the grime, but we don't quite get enough grit, and hence the ultimate uplift of the piece isn't quite as resonant as it could have been.
That the audience does still care to a certain extent, however, is a testament to the work of the actors. While his voice isn't nearly what it was back in 1996, Pascal's slow-burn anguish transfers to film well even if certain particulars about his character makeup were left on the cutting room floor (namely, the true specifics of April's demise--another, more subtle way Columbus softpedals the material). Martin and Heredia is the only on-stage couple to make the big screen leap intact, and also preserved is their effortlessly warm and heartbreaking chemistry; they make lovely music together in every sense, and as on the stage they are able to make a potentially treacly relationship ring emotionally true. The role of Benny, which was always the smallest of the eight principals, is reduced even further (not to mention a bit mellowed out and far less imposing an adversary--more sweetening), but Diggs is able to make an impression. Hopefully making a larger impression--on the motion picture powers that be, that is--is his real-life wife, recent Tony winner Menzel, whose commanding charisma, to say nothing of her powerhouse pipes, make it easy to believe that Maureen would have both a men and women eating out of her hand. Holding the story together as it did in the live theatre is the stabilizing presence and voice of Rapp.
The big question mark going in was Dawson, whose solid acting chops were common knowledge but not her musical performing ability. While her sweet, warm voice certainly isn't the strongest, particularly when placed among Broadway veterans (or compared to the role's Broadway originator, Daphne Rubin-Vega), it more than does justice to Larson's songs (her "Out Tonight" is steamy and electrifying) and fits in with her overall portrayal of Mimi. For all her provocative poses, surface toughness, and affectations of adulthood, she is still only 19 years old, and with that all the core vulnerabilities and naivete that comes with such youth; Dawson so vividly and fearlessly captures all the shades of Mimi's essence, both dark and light, that Columbus's soft touch is even more of a letdown. (One of the last-minute cuts he made was, bafflingly enough, Dawson's all-out Oscar clip.) Just as good but destined to be underrated is Thoms. One area that Columbus and Chbosky do a commendable job of fleshing out is the Joanne/Maureen/Mark triangle, and Thoms credibly captures Joanne's constant exasperation with Maureen--and with herself for loving her so much. She also sings the hell out of her part, and she is every bit Menzel's equal on the tumultuous two's diva vocal catfight "Take Me or Leave Me."
That sequence, however vibrantly performed, has become a controversial one for fans leading up to release due to its new context. I don't think the staging completely works, but I welcome it as it's one of the few moments, such as "Tango: Maureen," where Columbus actually takes a chance with the material. For the most part Columbus stays extremely close to the original staging, only adding basic embellishments, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing--witness the lively "La Vie Boheme," which is pretty much lifted wholesale--it also gives the film a "preach to the converted" feel that keeps the film from taking flight in its own right. The fidelity to the material down to the casting undoubtedly speaks to the fandom, and this fan indeed derives a fair amount of satisfaction from it. But that satisfaction comes from this being a document of what I enjoyed on stage--the music, the performances, the many other virtues as well as the flaws and shortcomings of what is, as earlier mentioned, a frozen work-in-progress. It's one thing to be respectful of the material and another to be overly reverent, and ironically the one thing going for the choice of Columbus as a director--his fan status--is also one of the major things that hamstrings the film. Rent the movie is in a lot of ways the film treatment many fans have envisioned for years, and that's the problem; it doesn't quite communicate how special and affecting the material is to those unfamiliar with it.