Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s my ex and I were befriended by a guy named Jim who lived in New York City. Because of that, we went to NYC frequently in those days and on several occasions, Jim took us for a tour of a section of Greenwich Village known as Alphabet City (named because of the streets called “A”, “B” and “C”). There were lots of funky little bars and outrageous shops in this part of The Big Apple; as well as tons of abandoned buildings that were housed by squatters and artists. In fact, art was everywhere in this area. On any given day one could see street performers or painters or sculptors doing their thing and displaying it for the world to see. While it was gritty and kind of forbidding, Alphabet City was also full of life and creativity that seemed to flow through its filthy streets…
Another thing that was happening in this part of Manhattan was that many of the buildings were being pad-locked, and many of the inhabitants were being thrown out by the yuppies that saw a good thing in gentrification.
And one more thing, AIDS awareness was everywhere. Groups like ACT UP were taking there fight into the streets, making people aware. Support groups had formed for the infected, as well, and that was all well and good, but people were still dying from this insidious disease. Our friend, Jim was constantly going to funerals and memorial services in those days; not so long ago…
Today this area is filled with trendy shops and over priced condos; the yuppies won and the streets are safe, bland, but safe.
And so with that little history lesson in mind, let us turn our attention to Chris Columbus’s version of the Broadway hit, "RENT" which I saw today.
If you’ve been near my blog in the past few weeks, you might have noticed that I’ve been really licking my chops over this one. I’ve seen the play several times and was so taken with the story and music that I could not wait to see the filmed version, conversely I was kind of apprehensive knowing that the man who directed, “Home Alone” was going to be at the reins…while far from perfect, Columbus has done a serviceable job with the material and has pulled off a pretty decent film all things considered.
Changes were made in this adaptation and some of them worked. For instance, the play’s big song, “Season’s of Love” which is used to open the second act of the production, now serves as the overture for the piece. We open on the main cast standing in an abandoned theater, each on stage with their own spotlights as they croon the beautiful ballad about life and how the little, almost inconsequential things, are what we sometimes use to measure our existence as well as the existence of others.
Once the song is ended the movie takes off and I was delighted to find that the opening number, which I never really liked much, the title song, “Rent”, is performed magnificently, as an almost war cry of defiance as the denizens of the tenement buildings burn their eviction and late-due notices while standing on fire escapes dropping the flaming pieces of paper to the ground below much to the chagrin of the landlord, Benjamin Coffin (played by Taye Diggs). I actually had chills as to how powerful this scene came off.
As the movie continues we meet our group of protagonists… there is Roger, the former rock-god fresh out of rehab and HIV positive (played by Adam Pascal), Mark (Anthony Rapp), the frustrated film maker who’s girlfriend, Maureen (Idina Menzel), a performance artist, has just left him for a woman, a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thomas); Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) the failed school teacher who is mugged on Christmas Eve and is rescued by Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) a cross dressing street performer who like Collins and Roger is HIV positive; and finally there is Mimi (Rosario Dawson) who is an exotic dancer, heroin addict as well as being HIV positive her self. Landlord, Coffin was once part of this crew, but he sold out in the eyes of his friends marrying well and is now part of the problem in Alphabet City.
On stage, everything was sung, "RENT" was for all intent and purposes, an opera; the film plays with this and actually turns some of the singing into dialogue which works, for a bit…you see the first hour of the film is mostly singing and then after the rousing, “La Vie Boheme” number, it seemingly shifts gears and for almost twenty minutes or thereabouts, there is no singing, just some added scenes of Mark getting a job and becoming a paid camera man for a glitzy television news program. And this is where the movie derails for a bit. We’ve come to see a musical, through singing and dancing the story could have been told (as it was on stage) however Columbus opted on having Mark’s story told with out song. In my humble opinion, it does not work and stalls the entire piece.
Luckily, things pick up toward the end and not only does the singing take center stage, the pathos kicks in. Ok, I admit it, I cried twice during this movie. I knew what was coming, but it moved me just the same. No spoilers here, I swear – but trust me, have some tissues ready unless you are made of steel.
All in all, I enjoyed RENT. I think if you are familiar with the play, you won’t be disappointed by the film. If you have never seen the play or are not familiar with the story (Or "La Bohème", on which it is based), you might get lost.
And one more thing, every single person in this film is remarkable (most of the original Broadway cast is here reprising their roles), but if there is one stand out, it is Dawson; she is simply one of the most stunning women to grace a screen in a long time. It should be noted that she was not one of the original cast members, but she takes the role of the doomed ingénue in short skirts and makes it her own; Rosario Dawson is hotter than Georgia asphalt (make of that what you will, it is coming from the lips of a gay man).
Much like "HAIR", "RENT" is a period piece about youth, sex, dying and living … living for the moment; no day like today…go see it.