Photo by Phil BrayNot since The
Phantom of the Opera
has a musical turned into a secular
religion in quite the way of Jonathan Larson’s Rent
— a success story made all the more tragi-romantic by
the fact that Larson died of an aortic aneurism, at the age of 35, the day before
Rent’s off-Broadway premiere.
As it nears a decade of residence at the Nederlander Theatre, where it has played
nearly 4,000 performances, Rent is
now the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history, and it continues to
draw a roughly 75 percent capacity crowd on a weekly basis. Legions of fans
swear by the thing — just as people live for John Grisham, or consider The
Shawshank Redemption
one of the greatest movies ever
made. And last I checked, there was no legislation pending before Congress that
would curtail such behavior — though perhaps there should be.
I’ve never seen Rent onstage, but after watching the long-in-the-works
film version directed by Chris Columbus, I felt as though I had. That’s because
Columbus, late of the first two Harry Potter films, isn’t the kind of director
who brings a fertile cinematic imagination to a project. Rather, when he takes
on a sacrosanct pop-culture object like Potter or Rent, he labors
to preserve its molecular infrastructure, no matter that the work was originally
conceived for a different medium. So, just as Columbus’ Potter movies never
fully loosed themselves from the written page, there’s scarcely a moment in Rent
— save for one production number, “The Tango Maureen,” which is lively enough
to suggest that someone else directed it — that doesn’t feel terminally stagebound.
Columbus doesn’t direct scenes so much as he records them, in long, meandering
crane and Steadicam shots, as if he were documenting a live stage show for future
television broadcast. Even when he films in real New York City locations, he renders
them as inert as a studio back lot. If the great movie musicals are the ones that
transport us to some heady superreality, the only place Rent takes us to
is the Nederlander Theatre. So, what exactly is Columbus preserving? Based
in part on La Bohème — you know, that famous opera by Baz Luhrmann — Rent
observes 525,600 minutes in the lives of the healthiest-looking, most highly
functional junkies, strippers, AIDS patients and starving artists who populate
the cold-water flats of New York City’s Lower East Side, circa 1989. There’s Mark
(Anthony Rapp), our narrator and an aspiring filmmaker, who resolves early on
to “start shooting without a script”; his roommate Roger (Adam Pascal), a leather-jacketed
singer-songwriter reeling from his girlfriend’s suicide and occasionally plucking
out a few bars of “Quando Me’n Vo’soletta” on his guitar; and “computer-age philosophy”
professor Collins (Jesse L. Martin) who, despite being the most gainfully employed
of the bunch, hasn’t lost touch with his neighborhood roots. The same can’t be
said, alas, of Benny (Taye Diggs), a onetime local who married a rich real-estate
developer’s daughter and now plans to turn Mark and Roger’s loft into “a state-of-the-art
digital interactive studio.” Whatever the hell that means. The characters
in Rent suffer for their art — we never really find out if any of them
are actually talented, but we’re asked to believe that they’re all brilliant —
and they suffer in other ways, too. The whole movie is like a paean to the nobility
of suffering. Mark’s ex-girlfriend, the aforementioned artist Maureen (Idina Menzel),
has recently ditched him for an attorney named Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Roger and
Collins are both HIV-positive — something which, in Roger’s case, becomes fodder
for a song, “I Should Tell You.” Fortunately for Roger, the object of his desire,
the beautiful but tragic Mimi (Rosario Dawson), is HIV-positive herself — and
a junkie and a stripper to boot, which I suppose makes her the winner of the Alphabet
City triple crown. And just to make sure he has all his bases covered, Larson
throws in one interracial lesbian engagement party, a wisdom-spouting homeless
prophet, and a Latino, cross-dressing street performer unsubtly named Angel (Wilson
Jermaine Heredia). No oppressed minority or special-interest group is left unturned
(save perhaps for paraplegic albino hermaphrodites). Was Larson really hoping
to have a career on Broadway, or was that just going to be his springboard into
politics? As in Phantom, the music is staggeringly, brain-meltingly
terrible — loud rock anthems and power ballads of a sort that makes Jon Bon Jovi
seem like, well, Puccini. The cast members, who are supposed to be playing characters
in their late teens and early twenties, don’t look a day younger than 35; and
there’s not a character onscreen who has more dimension than a cardboard backdrop.
You also don’t have to think too long or hard to come up with a list of deeper,
more honest studies of la vie bohème — my own mind immediately drifted
to Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy, with its unflinching portrait of emotional and
chemical dependencies. (By comparison, in Rent, Mimi’s entire odyssey from
addict to withdrawal to re-addiction is condensed into one montage sequence.)
But Rent isn’t trying to be honest; it’s selling a fantasy, with the emphasis
on selling. Although Larson supposedly based Rent on people he knew, the
whole enterprise feels as shallow, impersonal and opportunistic as one of those
Hollywood action blockbusters designed to be easily translated into other languages
and cultural idiom. True to form, the stage version of Rent has conquered
the globe, playing in such far-flung destinations as Africa and South Korea. Surely,
the film will too. For the considerably cheaper price of a movie ticket, new audiences
can now be showered with such meaningless, up-with-people aphorisms as “No day
but today,” “Take me for what I am” and “How about love?” They can be reminded
that, no matter how grim things get, they’ll work themselves out for the best
(or how, failing that, they’ll become martyrs who inspire all their friends to
live their lives to the fullest). And they can rest assured that by swallowing
this hooey, they are somehow expressing their own individuality, just like all
the lemmings in their Che Guevara T-shirts. Rent wants to teach the world
to sing all right, but only if the world buys a Coca-Cola first.
Screenplay by STEPHEN CHBOSKY, based on the musical by Jonathan Larson | Produced
Columbia Pictures | Citywide

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