I didn’t like Rent (2005, directed by Chris Columbus) at all when I first saw it. Still, I didn’t really like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest first time round, either, so there’s definitely something wrong with me. Now I love them both. Some of the songs in Rent take a while to learn and it took me a full listen all the way through to be able to re-watch it and realise that I loved the music, I loved the character and I loved the ethos. It’s now a film I’ve seen at least ten times.
If you don’t know anything about Rent, it’s the one which is being in parodied in Team America: World Police (“Everybody has AIDs”). It champions artistic endeavour, sexual difference and a bohemian lifestyle. It was written by Jonathan Larson, who tragically died the night before its first off-Broadway premiere in 1994. It is based very, very vaguely on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, and the original stage show is an opera itself, in that virtually all words are sung, not spoken.
However, this film version makes some deliberate efforts to be less operatic. For example, it opens with Mark speaking, “From now on in I shot without a script…” rather than singing it, as in the stage version. Entire songs, such as “You Okay Honey?” are reduced to nothing but the title, spoken aloud, and a lot of the more dramatic scenes featuring operatic-style exchanges are cut entirely, such as “Goodbye Love”. It’s a shame that these are lost. I also miss the Christmas medley. Chris Columbus’ attempts to make this musical more mainstream (and slightly more palatable for less musical-orientated audiences) are perfectly excusable, but I do know a hardcore fan of Rent who came to the original soundtrack before the film, and simply won’t watch the film again because of the changes made. In fact it’s her version of the DVD I inherited (yay for me!)
Mark often feels like the main character of Rent, and given that his character is a film maker, in this movie version it seems even more as if we are seeing the world through Mark’s eyes; the construction we are watching is clearly a film, plus we can also actually watch the footage which Mark is supposedly filming..
The glossy finish on so many films these days makes some of the grittier aspects of the storyline feel a tad sanitised. This is a world of struggling artists, AIDs sufferers and AZT breaks, of Cat Scratch Clubs and half-empty funeral congregations, of people trying to survive in virtual poverty in NYC, but it still feels very clean to me. However, the benefit of filming Rent is that you can take your audience to actual locations; the cast can wander down real streets, “Santa Fe” can take place on a full scale tube train, the autumnal scene in the graveyard is gorgeous to look at. There are moments, such as where the camera lifts upwards from behind Mimi as she raises her arms during “No Day but Today” which manage to complement the emotional build of the songs perfectly. This is exactly why film versions of musicals should exist; an on-screen director needs to use what a stage director doesn’t have (cameras!) and run with it, in order to produce something different but by no means less. Columbus also creates montages you would only be able to imitate on stage with separate synchronised tableaus; “Without You” covers a lot of ground in the film, including showing Angel’s death in a way which the song “Contact” (unsurprisingly not featured) couldn’t.
All but two members of the cast of the original Broadway production reprise their roles in this film (although arguably they were a little too old to now play these struggling young artists…) Adam Pascal (wannabe rock star Roger), Anthony Rapp (wannabe film-maker Mark), Taye Diggs (Benny, who abandoned his wannabe friends and married into money), Jesse L Martin (computer age philosophy teacher, Collins) Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel, Collin’s new found cross-dressing boyfriend) and Idina Menzel (performance artist Maureen) are all reprising their roles from the Original Broadway cast of Rent. The cast’s love for each other is tangible. Although these cast members predominantly have stage experience, they all hold their own in the very different context of a movie. The new editions to the cast fit right in; Rosario Dawson (Mimi, exotic dancer and addict) has an effortlessly beautiful voice and Tracie Thoms (Joanne Jefferson, lawyer and the girl who Maureen left Roger for) impressively holds her own in the vocal cat-fight show-down between Maureen and Joanne during “Take Me Or Leave Me.”
One of the most enjoyable moments in the film is Maureen’s protest. Given that the song combines spoken performance art and singing, it was decided that Idina Menzel would perform this song live in front of the audience gathered for the filming. Here, she shows her killer vocal skills as she performs “Over the Moon”. The ‘real’ audience reaction here helps to replicate the chemistry which Maureen’s performance would encourage from a theatre audience when she invites them to “moo with me.” Idina Menzel has since deservedly achieved star status, thanks to her Frozen performance of “Let it Go”.
The extended set piece of La Vie Boheme, in which the main characters all gather together in the Life Café after Maureen’s protest, is also impressive. It embodies the musical’s message of embracing a bohemian, alternative lifestyle, and finding joy in all of life’s little things.
The film opens with a shot of the cast standing on a stage in an empty auditorium and singing “Seasons of Love” under individual spotlights. The deleted scenes show that at one point this was how Columbus also intended to end the film; everyone but Angel is in line on stage, singing the repeating refrain of “There’s only us, there’s only this/I’d die without you” and Angel joins them, taking up his empty space and they sing the rest of the finale together. While this on-stage way of framing the film breaks the reality, it is paying tribute to the musical’s original on stage incarnation and it’s a nice touch, however the ending Columbus opted for is just as touching.
When you explain what Rent is about to anyone, it sounds miserable beyond belief. Admittedly, the ending is bitter-sweet. There’s rarely a dry eye… on my face… by the end of the film, but it’s affirming to watch; it raises the spirits. It’s about love; friends, lovers, even exes, standing by each other in sickness and in health and seizing the mother-fudging moment. No Day But Today.