‘Rent’ Doesn’t Suck!

     November 22, 2005

Posted by Mr. Beaks

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La Vie Boheme!

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1996 was the year I moved to New York City.; It was also the year of Rent.; For this reason, and for others too convoluted and personal to get into, it’s a very special musical to me, which gets particularly paradoxical when you take into account that I’ve never been its biggest fan.

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When it was just the off-Broadway sensation that put the fledgling New York Theatre Workshop on the legit map, Rent, the scrappy transposition of Puccini’s La Boheme from opera to hipster musical, represented an exciting new movement in a community that was struggling to stay relevant while most of its denizens mourned the loss of loved ones to AIDS.; That this revolutionary new voice had cruelly been struck from this world on the eve of the show’s first preview seemed fitting even though Jonathan Larson was felled not by that disease, but by an aortic aneurism.; Several months after his untimely passing, Larson was a god; tickets to Rent were harder to come by than a straight man at a Mame revival.; Madonna showed up one night, Spike Lee another, and suddenly the show was being rushed to Broadway for Tony Award consideration, though finding space on the clogged Great White Way for this eleventh-hour tenant took some doing.; Ultimately, Rent ended up at the appropriately rundown Nederlander Theater (vacant since 1993), and, within several months of opening under a dark cloud, it was named Best Musical.; Not long after that, Larson won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.;

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In the throes of this theatrical love affair, it was blasphemy to suggest that Rent was a massively flawed work that fell apart in the second act.; Though its shortcomings mirror those of its source material (I’ve yet to see a production of La Boheme that doesn’t gradually deflate after Mimi’s waltz), the fact that, as a musical, Rent was more reliant on story to carry its audience through to the end made its narrative deficiencies particularly glaring, and those unceasing repetitions of “Seasons of Love” only exacerbated matters.; After a year or so, the glow emanating off of the show faded, and, as it repeatedly failed to live up to its hype, the not unjustified backlash set in.;

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This is why, nearly ten years later, a filmed adaptation of Rent seems like a bad idea.; AIDS is no longer a death sentence, Alphabet City is as gentrified as the rest of Manhattan, and the show was wickedly parodied a year ago in Team America.; Perhaps in Spike Lee’s hands (he was attached to direct for several years), the notion to bring the project before cameras would’ve merely been sketchy; under the aegis of the highest paid studio hack in the business, Chris Columbus, it sounded downright disastrous.;

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Somehow, though, Columbus’s mawkish sensibility is a perfect marriage for Larson’s unsubtle celebration of modern bohemia.; Normally a perpetrator of lavishly mounted faux-Spielbergian sentimentality absent his mentor’s ability to finesse a story or naturally tease out metaphor, Columbus has never once enforced an authorial personality on any of his films, rendering him an enigma by default, which is why the vivacity of the first major number, “Rent”, is so completely shocking and actually a little liberating.; God help him, but Columbus is actually connecting with the material!; Surely, the original cast is responsible for some of this energy (Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms are the only newcomers), but Columbus’s lensing of the rent strike is fully engaged; he’s getting off on the spectacle.

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This vigor carries over into “Today 4 U”, where Wilson Jermaine Heredia temporarily takes over the film as the cross dressing street percussionist Angel, who, as was the case on stage, quickly becomes the soul of the musical.; For those new to the musical, don’t blame Columbus for the inertness of the Mimi/Roger romance; it was only marginally more affecting in the show’s original incarnation when Daphne Rubin-Vega played the doomed heroin addict.; To Dawson’s credit, she commits completely to the role of Mimi, but while her dancing is seductive, sometimes unbearably so, her singing is atrocious.; Adam Pascal does yeoman’s work carrying Dawson through “Light My Candle”, but, man, does she ever mangle “Out Tonight” with that deadly mixture of a thin voice desperately seeking pitch.

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The film’s high point is “La Vie Boheme”, as joyous a set piece as any I’ve seen all year.; Never mind the contrived setup (what the hell kind of restaurant would cater to struggling artists and moneyed Long Islanders?), and excuse the painfully earnest lyrics; this is the one time the musical captures the counterculture immediacy of its obvious antecedent, Hair.; The sentiment may be dated, but I still found myself getting swept up in the unbridled corniness of it all (though Columbus doesn’t successfully manage the segue into and out of the “I Should Tell You” interlude).

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What comes next is Act Two, and, for the most part, tedium.; “Take Me or Leave Me” is still a knockout number, even though the still sexy Idina Menzel is getting a bit long in the tooth to be playing a twentysomething free spirit, but it’s hardly brilliant enough to offset the awfulness of the power ballad “What Your Own”, which Columbus has inadvisably envisioned as an homage to the video for Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway”.; (Pascal’s also looking a bit too old for the struggling musician act.)

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For all it has going against it, though, Colubmus’s version of Rent benefits from the glossy touch.; There was never anything remotely gritty about Larson’s show; it was just dressed-down camp.; Stripped of its pretensions, and transplanted to a more upscale neighborhood, Rent finally feels at home.

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