Judge Brett Cullum wants you to light his candle.
Collins: I think they meant it when they said you can't buy love. Now I know you can rent it. A new lease you were my love—on life…all my life.
In 2005, Jonathan Larson's Tony and Pulitzer praised musical about bohemian artists in Alphabet City finally hit the silver screen. Fans of the show have reason to cheer, and those not yet exposed to the work will find it surprisingly accessible on DVD. "There's only us" and "no day but today" will ring through your living room again and again. If you love musicals, you have to go out and snag Rent.
Facts of the Case
Rent chronicles a turbulent year in the life of several friends dealing with life, love, and AIDS in New York City's underground bohemian art scene circa 1989. Chris Columbus (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) translates the intimate stage production by keeping most of the original Broadway cast. There's a wide mix of characters and plots. Anthony Rapp (A Beautiful Mind) plays a documentarian named Mark, Adam Pascal (SLC Punk!) broods as frustrated musician Roger, Rosario Dawson (Sin City) portrays stripper Mimi, Jesse L. Martin (Law and Order) shirks academic success as radical philosophy professor Tom Collins, Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Flawless) flaunts it as the drumming drag queen Angel, Idina Menzel (Kissing Jessica Stein) creates the bisexual performance artist Maureen, Tracie Thoms (The Devil Wears Prada) hangs on as Maureen's current lover, and Taye Diggs (House on Haunted Hill) demands the rent as a former bohemian turned successful landlord.
The story is a bleak landscape of struggle with poverty and disease, but it's also a surprisingly optimistic view of the grace that comes out of living a desperate life and clinging to art as a refuge. The story has its roots in classic opera, but it also captured a struggle of the landed gentry with the "have nots" in New York. The year is 1989, and people are homeless and dying of AIDS. There's no choice but to grab as much life and love as you can, and live without fear. Rent is all about living and loving the moment you're in, and celebrating every personal triumph despite the circumstances. It's all about measuring life not by money, but by friends and love.
The stage production of Rent was the dying wish of an aspiring musical writer who supported himself waiting tables at a diner. Jonathan Larson had always dreamed of following in the footsteps of his idol Stephen Sondheim, and in 1996 it looked like his dreams were finally coming true. His off-Broadway production Rent was in its final dress rehearsal when he passed away from an aortic dissection. Bravely, the cast and crew went on with the production, carrying on with their departed friend's vision of bohemian artists. It was a sensation, and soon hit Broadway, London, and toured around the nation. A cult seemed to form around the show, and people became self-identified "Rentheads." They would see the show hundreds of times, and make anything related to the show that came out an instant smash.
I was lucky enough to see the original Broadway cast during Rent's run. They were amazingly passionate, and it was their fire and commitment that overcame the show's shortcomings. The stage production was a sparse affair without much of a set, and the actors worked their way through a sometimes sketchy narrative based largely on Puccini's opera La Boheme. It even retained the name of the old classic's leading lady—Mimi—and simply replaced her consumption with AIDS. It rocked Broadway with a power similar to the original run of Hair. Rent was a pop music revolution that brought in a new, younger generation to Broadway for the first time. It resurrected the rock opera with a ferocity not seen in decades. Even though the show's creator had died before the final touches were put on his work, the show was finished by the power and passion of the cast and the grateful audiences who connected with the energy of the dazzling new musical.
Wisely, Chris Columbus's vision of the movie expands the settings, and attempts to flesh out the plot to make it a little less symbolic. Rent feels more faithful than even Rob Marshall's take on Chicago, because Columbus rarely alters the show and keeps the cast intact. The only performers in the movie who were not there that fateful night in 1996 when Rent was born are Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thorns. Daphne Rubin-Vega (Wild Things) felt she was too old to reprise her role as the nineteen year-old Mimi, and she was also pregnant at the time of filming. Dawson doesn't shortchange the role, offering the same smoldering sexuality of Rubin-Vega's portrayal even if she doesn't have the same musical theatre chops. The Broadway veterans relish the chance to reprise their roles, and the chemistry of the cast is still intact a decade after they all started this journey. Structurally, some of the song orders are juggled, most notably moving "Seasons of Love" to the opening of the show rather than the top of the second act. In the stage production there was less dialogue, but most of the spoken lines in the movie are based on lyrics from abandoned pieces of music.
When Rent hit theatres there was a heated discussion on whether the film was accessible to people who had not seen the stage production. My impression is the film is actually clearer than what was on stage, and might be an easy way to be introduced to the show. True, the intimacy of a live performance is lost. The movie doesn't have the emotional weight of seeing these characters live in front of you, but this is a rare chance to see the people who created this show up close on film. If you missed Rent in theatres, DVD is an even better way to experience it.
You couldn't ask for a better DVD package for the film. Rent is rendered beautifully in an anamorphic widescreen transfer without any visible artifacts and with spot-on black levels. The surround sound mix is appropriately full, and gives a dramatic impact to each number. Extras are incredible as well. On the main disc there's a commentary track features Chris Columbus joined with lead actors Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal. It's an engaging, insightful track which discusses alterations to the show and the history of the production eloquently. On the second disc there is a treasure trove of deleted sequences that have optional commentary. It includes many of the cut songs, and a stunning optional ending that might have been more powerful than what hit the final cut. There is an extensive documentary on the stage show and the film called "No Day But Today." It takes you through Larson's short life, the show's rise to fame, and the film's journey to bring it all full circle. It's a dream come true of the development of everything associated with Rent in an immaculate, stunning film. Also included are PSAs about the Jonathan Larson foundation. This is easily one of the best DVDs released.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Rent unapologetically revels in its musical theatre roots, and people who are not fans of spontaneous singing and production numbers out of nowhere are not going to find this production appealing. It's a true blue musical in the tradition of Jesus Christ, Superstar and West Side Story, so it's best that you be a fan of the genre. And even more than that, it's a rock opera, a musical subgenre that purists sometimes find troubling.
I hate to disagree with the cast who claim (on the commentary) that Rent is not dated by its subject material…but it is. Even when the show was first mounted it captured a feeling of New York in the late '80s that was a mythic lost era. The references to AZT breaks, ACT UP! demonstrations, and the bohemian dreams of squatters in Alphabet City was dated even back in 1996. You have to be willing to enter the world of a period piece, and take it for what it is. Things have changed. AIDS is more understood and slightly more manageable as a disease, ACT UP! has entered in to legend, and New York has become gentrified and not as welcoming to the bohemian artist. Unfortunately rents are higher, but thank God health is more attainable.
Rent is moving, and experiencing it on DVD is a powerful experience where you get so much more than just a movie. If you love musicals, or if you're a "Renthead," run to the nearest store to grab this beautiful package. This is video crack for Broadway junkies across the nation. Jonathan Larson's legacy lives on, and it's a stunning tribute to a poor thirty-six year-old diner waiter with a dream of changing the face of musicals forever. Congratulations, Jonathan, your work is immortal.
Guilty of being the best musical of 2005, and an instant classic of the genre. Viva La Boheme!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Chris Columbus and Actors Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp
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