Rent: Columbus’ Musical from Stage to Screen–Larson’s Ode to AIDS

Rent, a musical about AIDS, heroin addicts, squatters, gays and lesbians, transsexuals, and gay marriage is not exactly a typical Hollywood musical.
Yet Chris Columbus’ big screen version of “Rent,” the 1996 Tony and Pulitzer Prize award-winning Broadway musical, is a triumphant experience. Despite initial fears, based on the nature of the difficult material and Columbus’ previous work (the first two “Harry Potter”), it’s a pleasure to report that “Rent” is mostly effective as a movie musical.

Ill provide a longer, formal review of “Rent” in a few days. But for now, I want to convey my initial enthusiasm for a courageous movie that, while not flawless, is fresh and occasionally inventive. Released in these hypocritically moralistic times, when the Bush administration has all but denied AIDS and gay rights, not to speak of gay marriages, the filmmakers would have deserved credit for their courage even if their movie were not that successful. That “Rent” fulfills expectations on most levels is really a cause for celebration.

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“Many people didn’t believe in it as a musical,” director Columbus recently said, “but I know that if you have to fight really hard to get a movie made, it’s worth it.” Making it more difficult was Columbus’ decision not to soften or sanitize the dark, hard edges of the film’s themes and characters. I can’t think of another movie this season that’s all about outsiders, the Other America, the kind that Bush and his officials pretend doesn’t exist.

The stage production, which was written and composed by Jonathan Larson, got a lot of attention due to the timing of Larson’s death, right after the final dress rehearsal in New York and before opening night. And now, after the recent Katrina hurricane and other natural disasters that have left thousands of people dead and homeless, should make “Rent” more topical, even though the movie, like the play, is set in 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis.

“Rent” has been playing on stage for over nine years. On Broadway, not only the stage but the entire theater was converted into the set. The ceiling, light fixtures and balconies were transformed into the urban loft that’s the play’s main setting, designed to look like a run-down industrial space with lots of scrap metal.

Larson’s ode to AIDS, love, and homelessness was a groundbreaking theatre, reminiscent of the experience of Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line,” two decades earlier. Nonetheless, the two screen musicals should not be mentioned together. One of the worst adaptations of a Broadway hit to the big screen, “Chrous Line” was misconceived and misdirected by Richard Attenborough and poorly choreographed and acted by most of the cast, including Michael Douglas.

In 1989, Broadway critics heaped so much praise on the stage version of “Rent” that it created a sensation. The show won the Tonys and Pulitzer Prize, the same honors that had been bestowed on “Chorus Line” and “Angels in America,” which elevated its cultural cache and granted it further literary legitimacy.

While successfully repeating the New York pattern of casting relatively unknowns and retaining the original show’s vitality, the whole of the movie is greater than the sum of its parts. Compared to last year’s big musical (there’s really one or two a year), Joel Schumacher’s stale “Phantom of the Opera,” “Rent” explodes with the kind energy rarely seen on screen today, due to the cast’s youthful exuberance, raw talent, and rock ‘n roll score.

“Chicago,” despite its cynicism about celebrity and crime, were still movie musicals in the vein of Broadway’s musical tradition. However, thematically and artistically, “Rent” takes considerably greater risks than those two successful, Oscar-winning musicals.

Initial reports that Columbus considered casting the leads with professional singers-stars, like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, were alarming. Fortunately, the stage’s Gen-X group of actors was kept almost completely intact; Rosario Dawson, who plays Mimi, is one of the few exceptions. These cast members strut and sing their hearts out, bringing the audience closer into 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 an AIDS, and New York’s East Village is the new locale, substituting for Paris of the old piece.

Larson’s sparse book doesn’t allow for much development of the characters, but they still elicit sympathy and each has moments that ring emotionally true. His rock-pop score is more successful than the book, containing several memorable songs and a couple of smash hits, like the opening number.”

“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. The story brings to the screen a world of diverse cultures and music, resulting in a tribute to struggling artists and bohemians.

Mark, an aspiring documentary filmmaker and the show’s narrator, lives in an industrial loft he shares with his HIV-positive roommate, Roger. Roger, who wants to write one great song and can only strum “Musetta’s Waltz” from Puccini’s “La Boheme,” has a torrid affair with AIDS-stricken S&M dancer Mimi, his downstairs neighbor. Mark’s old girlfriend, Maureen, an avant-garde performance artist, has left him for another woman, Harvard-educated Joanne.

Mark and Roger’s mugged friend Tom, also HIV-positive, falls in love with magnanimous Angel, an HIV-positive transvestite with a heart of gold. Meanwhile, ex-roommate Benny, possibly the only character not infected with the HIV virus, has recently married into wealth and plans to evict the tenants and the other wretched homeless camped in the adjacent lot.

The angst these survivors deal with over the course of one year, in their bittersweet lives is overwhelming, for it includes suicide, illness, and pain. But they do survive, and it’s their wonderful gift of optimism that drives the story.

The gifted Larson covers the range of musical styles from rock to gospel, and his music is both uplifting and complex. The actors sing with such wild abandon, soul, and heart, that we forgive the lack of polish. Standout songs include Santa Fe, the lush chorale Christmas Bells, and the song that closes the film’s first part, the company number, “La Vie Boheme,” a passionate anthem to that lifestyle, showcasing the talents of the company singing as a whole. Maureen creates memorable moments, as in the sexy “Take Me or Leave Me” and the hysterical “Over the Moon.” Mark and Roger also get to display their vocal and acting talents in solos and duets.

The musical and narrative diversity of “Rent” challenges the predictability of the more mainstream production-line musicals of the past decade. What “Rent” lacks in character development (and choreography) it made up for in vitality–the youngsters’ valiant attempts to engage the audience.

“Rent” is decidedly not a typical Broadway or Hollywood musical. Most of the scenes are set to predominantly rock music, and much of the dialogue is sung. The subject may not be to everyone’s taste, but Larson’s inspired vision makes us think and feel. It’s a testament to Columbus’ conception that the overall tone is uplifting rather than depressing, and that the movie comes across as an ode to embracing life to the fullest.