I’d always wanted to see the stage version of Rent. I remember reading about the phenomenon when it hit the boards on Broadway in the 90’s: A revolutionary piece featuring drag queens and gay men; the first major musical to tackle the subject of AIDS. I never did get to experience it on stage, but I have finally seen the film version. And it’s bitterly disappointing.
The Tony and Pulitzer-winning musical – based on Puccini’s opera La BohÃ¨me – debuted in 1996 and soon garnered a loyal following called ‘Rentheads’ who connected with the play’s themes and flamboyant characters. The opening of Rent was marked by the fact that its creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly mere days before, giving the whole thing a mythical tragic patina.
The story of a year in the life of a group of apparently starving bohemian artists living in New York’s East village in the late 80’s, Rent is – all good intentions aside – a rock musical mess. The characters are thinly sketched and unbelievable – a particularly notable failure in a film that aims (unsuccessfully) to be gritty. The storyline is weak and contrived – it’s barely there. And the music, barring a few notable pieces, is tedious and grates on the nerves. The wailing guitars, earnest po-faced singing, and clunky lyrics cannot be taken seriously. At times it degenerates into a unintentional parody of a 1980’s Bon Jovi music video.
The whole thing comes across as a naÃ¯ve student production – albeit blessed with a considerable budget. Director Chris Columbus – not a student, but a veteran hack (Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire) – apparently did not deviate much from the stage version, and the film suffers for it. (The Tango: Maureen sequence in which he uses some filmic imagination, shows what could have been accomplished had he been more inspired.) Presented in intimate detail on the big and unforgiving screen, the material’s stagy weaknesses are magnified and exposed.
While it is dated in many ways, it is the fact that the issues which Rent tackles – such as the AIDS epidemic and drug addiction– are handled so simplistically, superficially and melodramatically that really irritates. There’s much laughable hand holding, teary eyes and singing in unison about one’s dignity and the travails of life at the end of the millennium. These “bohemian” characters come across as anything but bohemian – they’re preppy-looking-singing-dancing-forgeries of real people who happen to live in semi-squalid 1980’s New York.
Not only are the characters too flimsy for us to care about them, but the plot and heavy-handed story contrivances don’t help to generate much gravitas either. While there’s a storyline about the jovial gang being imminently evicted (because they can’t afford to pay their rent of course), we never really believe that they’ll land up on the street – no matter how much woeful warbling the hard-working cast subject us to. They all look too well fed and boast too much middle class angst to be in real peril. Most could phone up mom for a loan if push came to shove.
There’s Angel, the gentle and vulnerable Latino drag queen who, of course, is simply too pure to stay on this earthly plane for very long – he is the obligatory sacrifice aimed at getting the audience to shed a tear of two (I looked at my watch instead). Tom, the gay character is reduced to grinning manically in every scene and appears to be mentally challenged rather than the teacher he is meant to be. Roger, the pretty-boy shaggy-haired HIV positive musician takes a year to write a song, and it’s laughable when he’s done. The geeky filmmaker, Mark, is simply annoying (and his films are bad to boot).
The saving grace in Rent is the remarkable Rosario Dawson (Alexander) as Mimi. She injects her character – a drug addicted, HIV positive, erotic dancer – with some real humanity and depth. She is luminous and engaging on screen – especially in numbers like Light My Candle and Out Tonight – rising about the weak and stiff material.
Tracie Thoms, as the lesbian lawyer in love with a sexually manic performance artist, also stands out, thanks to the strength of her smart and understated take on the character. Interestingly, Dawson and Thoms’s are the only two major roles that are not performed by the original stage cast. The rest – much older than their characters’ ages – seem to have done this all too many times.
It’s rare that I find myself truly bored by a film – I can usually identify some redeeming quality to keep me watching until the conclusion. With Rent, I was tempted to walk out. I neither connected with the characters and their dilemmas nor was I entertained by the musical sequences. The film’s opening number is called Seasons of Love and informs us that there are “five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes” in a year. That seems almost as long as I was trapped in the cinema with Rent.