RENT directed by Chris Columbus, book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, screenplay by Steve Chbosky, with Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin and Idina Menzel. A Columbia Pictures release. 135 minutes. For venues and times, see Movie Times. Rating: NN
When Jonathan Larson's pop rock 'n' soul reworking of La Bohème hit off-Broadway in the mid-1990s, it already seemed artificial and dated. It was as if those annoying, self-righteous brats from Fame had grown up and experienced sex, hard drugs and HIV, with landlord issues to boot.
But the mythology of the piece's origins - Larson died unexpectedly on the night of the musical's first dress rehearsal - seemed to protect the work with a halo of romanticism. Larson's death gave the musical's "No day but today" message urgency, especially to impressionable teens and aspiring artists, who have kept the piece running in New York for nearly 4,000 performances.
Rent's frank depiction of same-sex relationships, cross-dressing, drug use and especially AIDS - half of the main characters are HIV-positive - was refreshing at the time, and it's still one of the best reasons to check out this adaptation, even if so much else feels fake and insincere.
Musician Roger (Adam Pascal) and filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) are being evicted from their palatial rent-free East Village loft by their former friend Benny (Taye Diggs), who has clearly sold out his boho ideals and embraced capitalism.
Despite the title, however, Roger and Mark are less concerned with money (no one seems to be working anyway) than with booty. Roger's just met his sexy neighbour Mimi (Rosario Dawson), and Mark is mourning the loss of his girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel), who has now switched teams to pair up with Ivy League-educated lawyer Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Oh yeah, and then there's everyone's friend Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), who's hooked up with cross-dresser Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) after being mugged.
Apart from an opening scene that establishes the work's theatre origins, this is pretty much a straight, opened-up adaptation set in 1989. So characters break into song while riding bikes, while taking the subway, even (!) after getting beaten up.
The problem is, film is a much more realistic and unforgiving medium than theatre. If you're going to film someone singing and dancing, you better provide a reason. Rob Marshall reimagined the logic of the musical sequences in Chicago - it was all happening in the mind of one character.
Rent could have succeeded with a similar structure. It would have been better to see the film as the disconnected memories of a dying character. Or, even more adventurous, why not set the piece in 2005 and give us glimpses of how the characters (and issues) have developed over a decade? This would have been appropriate. AIDS treatment has evolved a lot. Besides, the cast - most from the original Broadway production - are clearly no longer in their 20s.
But Chris Columbus, the director of Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter films, isn't an innovator. Most scenes are awkwardly staged, and a few musical sequences are filmed, without irony, like bad 1980s rock videos or earnest anti-drug PSAs.
Apart from some strong arrangements of songs and solid work by Dawson, Martin and especially Thoms, this is a museum piece, of interest only to those who already know, and love, the musical.