Rent: A Review

Ken AshfordPopular CultureLeave a Comment

Well, I read my first review of the movie I have been waiting to see for a long time — "Rent".  It looks like I won’t be disappointed.  Here are excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter:

"Rent" is one of the best film musicals in years — exuberant, sexy and life affirming in equal measure. Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical, based upon Puccini’s opera "La Boheme," makes an electrifying move to the screen as director Chris Columbus and choreographer Keith Young push the singing and dancing out into New York streets and subways.

Stylized action in real locations doesn’t always work in movies, but it does here perhaps because six of the eight actor-performers from the original Broadway show return for the movie version. These actors know their roles down to the grit in their fingernails, so the film feels loose and real, unfettered by a proscenium and opened up in an almost spiritual way.

"Chicago" proved that American audiences can still, on occasion, embrace a genre that has largely gone out of style. But what will mainstream audiences make of a musical about AIDS, drug addiction, homelessness and drag queens? "Rent" will be strong in major markets but needs crackerjack marketing to draw a broad young audience to the film.

"Rent," which Larson, its author and composer, did not live to see became a worldwide success, focuses on a group of impoverished young artists and musicians, struggling to survive in New York’s East Village neighborhood in the 1980s under the shadow of AIDS. "Rent" shares with "La Boheme" an affirmation of the bohemian lifestyle, of creativity and art over anything as mundane as earning a living or paying the rent.

The reason, of course, is these lives might be short. Drugs and HIV inflict several characters. Each feels a pressing need to create a legacy, one in which whom you love is at least important as what you create. You live your art — and life — with a metaphorical gun to your head.

*** [Plot synopsis omitted] ***

The film spills out of the cold-water lofts into nearby streets, bars, restaurants, performance spaces and churches in a celebration of the bohemian life. Stephen Goldblatt’s camera is constantly in motion, and Young’s dances have a athletic dynamism that energizes the screen. Some dialogue has been added in Steve Chbosky’s adaptation, but like the stage show the story is told in musical numbers that flow smoothly one into another. Meanwhile, Larson’s music honors a host of traditions, ranging from rock and blues to gospel, soul and even tango.

Columbus managed the complicated logistics of the first two "Harry Potter" movies but never put his own stamp on those huge productions. Something in "Rent," though, hooked him emotionally for the movie represents his best work — confident of the material inherited from Larson, true to that legacy yet willing to make changes and expand the possibilities for the screen.

Nearly every big movie has its set pieces around which the film develops, but "Rent" is all set pieces. Each requires ingenuity and sweat to get the best out of a super-talented cast. That each succeeds on its own terms yet flows together so easily is a tribute to Columbus’ passion for the material.

Howard Cummings’ interior sets, the location work, Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ vibrant costumes, the terrific dances and adventurous cinematography all add up to pure pleasure.