While Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent is predominantly sneered at by elitists and adults as teeny-bopper masturbatory nonsense, I’ve always found something richer in the show. Sure, it’s a tear-jerking story, but the topic—AIDS, love, and starving artists in the East Village—are not only universal themes of the heart, but stuffed with New York’s unique identity as well. The lyrics to the songs, fluffy on the exterior, often delve into the troubles that plague(d) artists in Manhattan: vicious landlords (“Rent”), being caught in the frenetic moment without foresight (“No Day but Today”), and, of course, the HIV virus that was running rampant when Rent was first conceived (“Without You”). All this said: if you hate the music to Rent or hated the Broadway show, don’t see the movie. It’s a continuous flow of loud energy, and will equate to Chinese water torture if it’s not your thing. For those who dig Larson’s vision, though, Rent is a wild, emotional rush through the cold streets and tattered bodies and souls, with gripping music to boot.
The film version is directed by Chris Columbus of Home Alone fame—he also directed the first two Harry Potter films. That’s not the most inspiring combination, as Columbus is known for taking a cautious approach with established material, but he pulls out all the stops here. From the opening “Seasons of Love,” Columbus establishes a sense of unity amongst the friends, and keeps it rolling throughout the picture. While there are a few moments of awkwardness in the transition from stage to screen, most of the cast pulls it off marvelously. The holdovers from the musical do their jobs well here, and the newcomers—Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Jesse L. Martin as Tom Collins, in particular—add plenty of fire to the production (seeing Dawson meow in the cat-scratch club is worth the price of admission alone). With the effective chemistry and a strong script in place, Columbus uses some of film’s advantages (a lovely series of fades during the heartbreaking “Without You” number is especially excellent) to add a cinematic flavor to Rent. Aside from a slow patch in the middle, it never lets go. There’s so much Manhattan truth pulsating throughout the movie that those of us who frequent Avenue A or the F train are bound to shed many tears. While the HIV phenomenon isn’t nearly as groundbreaking now as it was 15 years ago, seeing the body’s decomposition mixed with Angel’s optimism and Roger’s rebellious nature is still a shattering sight. There’s been enough written about Rent overall that I don’t feel the need to expand my thematic analysis, but I will happily recommend the onscreen rendition to all fans of the show and musical theater alike. By the time it’s over, we’re privy to how New York City chews up some, conforms others (Benny and, to a much lesser extent, Mark), and most of all, never breaks the true artists’ spirit.