Rent: Columbus Version of Larson’s Tont Award Winning Stage Musical, Starring Idina Menzel

Despite some flaws, Chris Columbus’ big screen version of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Tony and Pulitzer Prize award-winning Broadway musical is worth seeing.  Audacious and occasionally vibrant, “Rent” challenges the thematic and stylistic predictability of mainstream screen musicals of the past decade, including “Chicago” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

A film about AIDS, heroin addicts, squatters, homeless, gays and lesbians, transsexuals, and even gay marriage, doesn’t exactly describe a typical Hollywood musical. In its score and cultural diversity, “Rent” is a new kind of musical, one that concerns painful social problems that plague contemporary American society but are ignored by the Bush administration, pretending they don’t exist.

In spite of initial fears, based on the difficult material and director Columbus’ previous work (“Home Alone,” the first two “Harry Potter” adventures), it’s a pleasure to report that “Rent” is emotionally effective.

The film is not flawless–most of the actors are at least a decade older than the poor bohemian characters they play. However, what “Rent” lacks in age credibility, character development, and choreography (which is at best mediocre), it makes up for in the perfromers’ vitality and emotional engagement, urging the audience to confront (and feel sympathy for) characters seldom seen in mainstream Hollywood.

Released in our moralistically conservative and hypocritical times, when the Bush administration has all but denied AIDS and gay rights, not to speak of gay marriages, the filmmakers would deserve credit for their courage even if their movie were not that successful. That “Rent” fulfills expectations on most levels is therefore a double cause for celebration.

Columbus should be lauded for his decision not to soften the film’s dark themes or to sanitize the hard edges of the characters. It’s hard to think of another studio movie this season that’s all about outsiders, individuals that exist in the periphery of society and cherish values that diverge from those of dominant culture.

The stage production, which was written and composed by Jonathan Larson, got a lot of attention due to Larson’s death right after the final dress rehearsal and before opening night. Still running in its ninth season on Broadway, “Rent,” Larson’s ode to AIDS, love, and homelessness was a groundbreaking theatre in 1996, reminiscent in impact of Michael Bennett’s 1976 musical “A Chorus Line,” which also won a Pulitzer Prize. Nonetheless, the two screen musicals should not be mentioned in the same sentence. One of the worst screen adaptations of a Broadway hit, “Chorus Line” was misconceived by Richard Attenborough, and was also poorly choreographed and acted.

If “Rent” shows some strains, they derive from Columbus’ efforts to open up the play and include outdoor locations that would make the musical more cinematic yet would also offer logical or natural places for the characters to sing, since in addition to its twenty numbers, all the dialogue is sung.

While successfully repeating the New York pattern of casting relatively unknowns and retaining the show’s vitality, the movie as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Most of the stage’s Gen-X group of actors was kept intact; Rosario Dawson, who plays Mimi, is one of the few exceptions. The eight-member ensemble strut and sing their hearts out, bringing the audience closer to their world of friendship, love, pain, and death.

The story, inspired by Puccini’s popular opera of a century ago, “La Boheme,” is a modern-day tragedy. The tuberculosis of Puccini’s era is replaced with AIDS, and New York’s East Village substitutes for Paris of the old piece. Larson’s sparse book didn’t allow for much character development, which was a problem in the play and now even more so in the movie. Ultimately, Larson’s rock-pop score is more successful than the book, containing several memorable songs, such as the opening number, “Seasons of Love,” “Light My Candle,” and “Will I Keep My Dignity.”

“Rent,” as you may know by now, celebrates a young community of East Villagers as they struggle with the soaring hopes and tough realities of New York City of the late 1980s. Like the play, the movie is set in 1989-1990, from Christmas to Christmas to be exact, at the height of the AIDS crisis and homophobic hysteria, during the reign of Bush pere, which is not all that different that of Bush fils, including the Iraq War. The story brings to the screen a world of diverse sub-cultures and musical styles, resulting in an exuberant tribute to struggling artists wherever they live.

Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp), an aspiring Jewish documentary filmmaker, and the show’s narrator, lives in an industrial loft he shares with his HIV-positive roommate, the WASPish Roger Davis (Adam Pascal). Mark’s old girlfriend, Maureen Johnson (Idina Menzel), an avant-garde performance artist, has left him for another woman, the Harvard-educated Joanne Jefferson (Tracie Thoms). The lesbian marriage, an updated element that was not in the play, offers an occasion for Maureen’s good number, “Take Me or Leave Me,” sung to her jealous lover. The relationship between the two women is troubled from the start through their decision to get married, though not due to racial differences as to the more general issue of commitment.

Roger’s ambition is to write one great song, but he can only strum “Musetta’s Waltz” from Puccini’s opera. His neighbor Mimi Marquez (Rosario Dawson), the AIDS-stricken, S&M dancer who lives downstairs neighbor, pursues him aggressively and he finally relents to what turns out to be another on and off affair.

The ensemble is divided into couples, though not all of them romantic, a structural principle allows for the delivery of duets, along with solos and songs by the whole company. The musical’s most tragic subplot concerns Thomas B. “Tom” Collins (Jesse L. Martin), Mark and Roger’s HIV-positive friend, who was expelled from MIT and is tired of teaching computers to ungrateful students at NYU. Mugged and with no place to stay, Collins moves into the loft. In due course, he falls in love with Angel Schunard (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), an HIV-positive transvestite with a heart of gold.

Meanwhile, ex-roommate Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III (Taye Diggs), possibly the only character not infected with HIV, has recently married into wealth and plans to evict the tenants and the other homeless camped in the adjacent lot.
Though initially positioned as the yuppie enemy, later, Benny has a change of heart.

The angst these bohemians have to deal with during one year in their bittersweet lives is overwhelming for it includes suicide, illness, pain, and unbearable cold. Larson covers the range of musical styles from rock to gospel, and his music is both uplifting and complex. Offering the audience their souls and hearts, the actors sing with such wild abandon that one forgives the musical’s problems. It’s their wonderful gift of optimism, and their strong survival instincts, that drive the story and touch a deep chord with the audience.

The musical’s few problems are mostly conceptual. After a good opening scene that echoes “A Chorus Line,” with the eight actors on a bare stage in the theater, the film moves outdoors. Columbus and his team have lit the East Village in such a glorious way that it violates the gritty locale in which the musical takes place. Occasionally, the swirling camera and dolly shots distract attention from the songs, which are mostly terrific.

For example, outdoors staging of some songs, like “Santa Fe” in a subway station, doesn’t work so well, and neither does a sequence toward the end, when Roger drives a convertible around Monument Valley. The company number, “La Vie Boheme,” a passionate anthem to that lifestyle, showcasing the talents of the company as a whole, is too diffuse, and disrupted to generate the proper emotion. This number, which closes the film’s first part and is later reprised, moves in and out of so many locations that it loses momentum. Finally, the pauses, or blackouts, used to separate the scenes, break the emotional continuity and prevent the energy to accumulate to its desirable height.

Nonetheless, for almost every noticeable shortcoming, there is an inventive sequence. Each of the characters elicits sympathy and has moments that ring emotionally true. Maureen, for example, creates memorable moments in the sexy rendition of “Take Me or Leave Me.” Mark and Roger also get to display their vocal and acting talents in their duets. There’s a nice number, “Tango: Maureen,” that begins as a duet between Mark and Joanne and then transforms into a collective tango number that’s as dazzling as the tango in “Moulin Rouge.”

Space doesn’t permit me to dwell on each musical number and its emotional impact, but I’d like to point out the romantic duet of Collins and Angels, and then Collins’ mournful solo that follows Angel’s death, an event that eventually reunites the group.

“Rent” takes considerably greater risks than the Oscar-winning “Chicago,” which, despite cynical take on celebrity, still conformed to the tradition of Broadway, where it originated in the mid-1970s. And it’s particularly fresh, coming as it is after last year’s “Phantom of the Opera,” Joel Schumacher’s stale rendition of material that was pedestrian to begin with.

The cast’s youthful exuberance, the strong, unpretentious talent, and the exuberant rock score make “Rent” explodes with the kind energy rarely seen on screen. Decidedly not a typical Hollywood musical, “Rent” has the kind of music and characters that may not be to everyone’s taste, but if youre open-minded and give it a try, the musical might stir you in a way that most movies don’t.

It’s a testament to Larson’s inspired vision that, despite depressing subject matter, “Rent” ends on  uplifting note, an ode to embracing life to the fullest while it lasts.