Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Rent (2005)

Where to start? There is so much swirling around my head, and all for a film which I actually don't think is worthy of so much thought. I can see I'll have to get personal.

My confession is this: that as a teenager, which I was when "Rent" debuted on Broadway, I really felt it was a gift to us theater kids; something in which "real" people sang songs the rest of us could hit all the notes of. I related especially to Mark, the only one to fail at hooking up, the one who fears he'll be left alone to observe. I know this opens up a whole other can of worms for those of you who are ignorant of my theater geek past; but for the sake of journalistic integrity it must be known.

"Rent", for those of you who don't know, is a Broadway show that costs as much as a Broadway show usually does about poor people in lower Manhattan who complain about having to pay rent on the huge loft their former roommate owns, do drugs, get aids, and die singing. It is filled with appeals to the bohemian life; in fact, one of the choicest numbers is a list of things which exemplify this spirit (my favorite juxtaposition being "huevos rancheros and Maya Angelou!").

I hadn't thought about "Rent" in a long time until the film came out, almost under my nose. Actually, it went to the second run theaters before I could even decide whether it was worth seeing. $3 meant it was.

The movie prompted two reactions in me, somewhat contradictory ones. First, I was angered that so much of what I loved was left out. I tend to like the "connective tissue" of sung-through musicals; it's not necessarily the songs that get me, but the recitative, the sung-spoken bits which actually reveal plot and character. Rent, on stage, is filled with polyphonic plot-driving. Polyphony always makes me tingle. Most of the songs were still there, but they were simplified, excised of the little touches of character which made me like them. Some of these lines were preserved in dialogue, which is always a little disconcerting for a viewer familiar with the source material.

The other reaction was the solidification of my feeling that all was not right in the land of bohemia. If my advancing age (and wisdom, of course) weren't enough to tell me that "Rent" is a hollow shell of counter-cultural jargon with mass-market appeal, the film would have driven it home for sure. None of the characters seem sincere in their efforts to remain outside the "mainstream." Textually, everyone sells out when there's the least bit of temptation. Are we supposed to be happy that Angel's outfits would be mass-produced by the Gap? Does Mark even struggle with Sarah Silverman's sleazy tabloid offer? The only character who seems to practice what she preaches is Joanne, the lawyer; she's going for what she wants, tells it like it is, and doesn't apologize for it. Everyone else is living a lie. This is only aided by the fact that the song Roger takes a year to write is one of the worst in the show. Mimi should have turned right around and walked back toward that heavenly light.

On top of this, of course, is the fact that this is a counter-culture vehicle driven by Chris Columbus. Need I say more?

The original performers have held up to varying degrees. I've always loved Anthony Rapp as Mark; his voice is pleasantly nasal (to my prejudiced ears) and he's in pretty good shape. Roger looks (and sounds) like someone they hired ten years ago for his looks and not his voice. Angel is still beautiful, whether as man or woman, which is lucky. Jesse L. Martin (Collins) and Taye Diggs (Benny) look and sound great. Maureen, unfortunately, is not someone whom I believe when she says, "every single day/I walk down the street/I hear people say/'Baby's so sweet'". The new additions, Joanne and Mimi (Rosario Dawson, great in "Josie and the Pussycats") are good, but Dawson's gotten really thin.

Overall, the vocal tweaking was annoying, the cuts hampered the flow, and the hypocrisy was both repulsive and apparently unintentional. I had to see it as a follower in a former life; but that book is officially closed now, thanks to Columbus & Co.

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