DVD Review Of Rent

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/17/06


  Let me state that I have never been a fan of musicals. I loathed most of the Golden Age Hollywood musicals that my parents loved, and those from my youth, the 1960s and 1970s (Hair, Jesus Christ, Superstar, Godspell, etc.), did not move me, either- at least dramatically, even if the songs were great. Thereís something about people breaking out into song that is just so forced that, dramatically, is too much to overcome. Perhaps the only film musical that totally worked for me was Evita, and thatís because it was one long music video, from beginning to end, with literally only one sentence of spoken dialogue. However, musicals have been making a comeback in film. Moulin Rouge led the way, a few years back, and itís a truly great musical, if not a film. Chicago won an Academy Award for Best Picture the following year, even though itís not half the film, nor musical, Moulin Rouge is. Then, came the Cole Porter biopic, De-Lovely, and, well, Cole Porter, Cole Porter. It was a very good film that incorporated music wonderfully and intriguingly into its plot, the lifeís tale of the legendary composer. Next came Rent, the film version of Jonathan Larsonís late 1980s musical that dominated Broadway last decade, which updated Pucciniís opera, La Bohťme for the AIDS era. Surprisingly, while only also a great composer of ballads and rip roaring rock tunes. Without doubt, Rent has as many great songs as Hair or Godspell ever did- perhaps more.

  Yes, the actual story the tale tells is slight and often silly, if Iím being generous. Basically we follow a year in the life of eight Boho East Greenwich Village New Yorkers who deal with AIDS and drug abuse. They are the religious Rightís worst nightmare- a bunch of smug, pious hedonists who claim to love life even as they squander their own, and detest anyone else who is different (scarily the mirror opposite of the Right, eh?), but, luckily for the Right Wing, these young libertines all suffer plenty. Most of all, the gay transvestite, Angel, who dies of AIDS. If you are not a devotee of the play you will not be able to follow the threadbare plot on one viewing, but Rent makes up for its dramatic slightness by being an almost nonstop song machine for two hours and fifteen minutes. My two favorite songs are the glorious Seasons Of Love (Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutesÖ.), and Mimiís bodacious and sexy performance of Out Tonight. I defy any healthy heterosexual male to watch a writhing Rosario Dawson perform that song and not be able to sexually fantasize about her for a week.

  As for the DVD package? It comes in a two disk format. The first disk has the film, and commentary by director Chris Columbus and cast members, and itís surprisingly quite informative about the film, and the casting of it, as well as technical aspects, although it is oddly bleeped in some places. Given Columbusís lightweight film rťsumť (the Home Alone and Harry Potter film franchises) itís refreshing to hear him explain why certain scenes were cut or changed, or why what works on stage does not in film, or vice versa. Especially prescient is the explanation for why the film opens with a stage production (not unlike De-Lovely) but does not close with one (like De-Lovely). The second disk, however, is where the DVD package earns its props, with deleted scenes, and an alternate ending with commentary, some trailers, but a really terrific two hour documentary on the life and death of Rentís creator Jonathan Larson, called No Day But Today. Larson died on the night of final dress rehearsal, before the play opened Off-Broadway, of an aortic aneurysm before his 36th birthday. The play won the 1996 Obie, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, four Tony awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as three Drama Desk awards, and Larson actually fulfilled his dream: ĎI want to write the Hair for the 90s

  The cast members (Mark Cohen: Anthony Rapp, Roger Davis: Adam Pascal, Rogerís girlfriend/heroin addict Mimi Marquez: Rosario Dawson, Benny Coffin: Taye Diggs, Tom Collins: Jesse L. Martin, Tomís queer beau Angel Schunard: Wilson Heredia, Markís ex-girlfriend Maureen Johnson: Idina Menzel, and Maureenís lesbian lover Joanne Jefferson: Tracie Thoms), comprised mostly of the original Renters from Broadway, save Dawson and Thoms, all do well, and their familiarity with the material helps give the film a believability it would have lacked otherwise, due to the almost nonexistent screenplay by Stephen Chbosky, and the very fact that the whole thesis for the play- the AIDS epidemicís early years, seems quite dated in this era of terrorism, the Iraq war mess, and avian flu worries. Also, having four of the main characters- Roger, Mimi, Tom, and Angel- all be HIV positive strains the musical, especially considering that thereís a PC tinge to these portrayals, considering that the late 1980s, when the play is set, saw very little heterosexual AIDS penetration; one of dozens of anachronisms the playís and filmís many detractors gleefully point out, as well as many of its other philosophic posits being almost laughably naÔve.

  ButÖ.itís just a musical, not a documentary film. Yes, the characters are stereotypes and caricatures, there is no real development of their psyches, and the film ends in shameless melodrama- the abandoned and now homeless Mimiís death and resurrection, and preachiness- in its regard of the anomic, dead transvestite Angel as somehow the apex of the human experience. But, as I always asked people who harped about the 1998 Hollywood version of Godzilla, ĎWhat did you really expect from a film where a giant lizard stomps on New York; Brando in Streetcar?í Similarly, what can one reasonably expect from a work that glorifies AIDS suffering in such a Romantic light, as well the inanities and irresponsibilities of young drug addicts and sexual freak shows who somehow believe that the world owes them something merely for their breathing, and that having to actually pay rent to someone to live somewhere is a form of fascism? If you answered, ĎWell, maybe, good music,í you are absolutely right, and, fortunately, Rent has much of that to spare. Ultimately, the music, and Larsonís brilliance in the crafting of his infectiously catchy tunes, is the filmís saving grace. And, when has even a little bit of grace ever been a bad thing?

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