rent

2005

Directed by: Chris Columbus
Written by: Stephen Chbosky (from the Stageplay by Jonathan Larson)

When I saw the Sydney production of Rent for the first time I was struck by the fact that no matter how awful and deeply emotional the subject matter got, there always seemed to be an element of hope and laughter to prevent the show from drowning in its own misery. The characters are after all quite tragic, each in their own way. They are also all (despite their claims to the contrary) quite self-centred and egotistic. It is only when they truly experience tragedy that they can defeat their own egos and embrace each other as family in that bohemian spirit to which they all claim to aspire. They finally begin to understand the words they've been spouting since the beginning. It's a fascinating journey.

The film, like the stageplay, rises and falls on its casting. I was sceptical at first of the "name" actors in the film, particularly when I saw Rosario Dawson had been cast as Mimi. But honestly, her performance blew me away. It is energetic, multi-layered and honest. Unfortunately for her, the casting of both Roger (Adam Pascal) and Benny (Taye Diggs) was less successful, which meant she had to carry the bulk of her scenes alone, with nothing but hindrance from her supposed romantic partners. She almost manages to pull it off.

The lesbians in the story, Joanne and Maureen (Tracy Thoms and Idina Menzel) are an absolute scream. They take the constant love/hate feud that is their relationship and spin it wonderfully. The decision to stage their big fight/duet "Take Me or Leave Me" at their commitment ceremony in front of hundreds of guests was just inspired, and was one of the only scenes that helped lift the film from the milieu of the eighties/nineties into something that actually felt up to date and contemporary.

My favourite song from the musical "The Tango Maureen" was also staged well, with Mark's fantasy lifting him and Joanne from the New York tenements into some ballroom dancing dream world. It was a timely escape from the faux-filth of the sometimes too-obvious art direction that plagues the remainder of the film. Maureen's performance art piece was also staged well simply because it took advantage of the fact that this is a film, not a stage play. It used a 360 degree space and felt real. Unfortunately, because of that it doesn't really fit with the remainder of the film, since the rest insists on limiting itself to ideas that might have worked onstage. The proscenium arch is absurdly alive and well here.

For me, the biggest surprise in the casting came from ex- Law and Order detective Jesse L. Martin. I knew the man could sing, but this was just a revelation. As Tom Collins, the down-on-his-luck Uni lecturer who falls for Angel, the fun-loving drag queen, his presence was powerful but not overpowering, and his voice lent a sweetness to the ensemble pieces that really resonated.

In fact, as a whole, the casting was well done. The music is as good as it ever was, and the voices were great. So what in all heck went wrong? Why does the film feel so... dull? So dated? How could someone take one of the greatest and most rewarded modern musicals and almost make it boring?

The problem could lie in the already-mentioned problematic art direction. The whole thing felt so staged. They had an opportunity to really lift this material and plant it right in the poverty and the squalor from which it came, but it all seemed so fake and overly stylised. How can I believe in a character's poverty if they're wearing a gorgeous, long leather coat? I don't care how shabby you try and make it look. Fake shabby just doesn't cut it. The music itself requires better.

The only musical number with truly energetic choreography was the centrepiece song "La Vie Boheme", which unfortunately gets interrupted halfway through for insipid Roger to croon about telling Mimi he has AIDS (which should have been a beautiful moment, but I kept wondering how they made the fake snow stick in their hair). However, that song has such natural energy it would take a really horrible director to screw it up, so it still buzzes in spite of it all.

As for the rest of the film, I'm actually willing to throw the problems it has all firmly at the feet of Chris Columbus. This is the man who took Harry Potter and made it dull. Twice. He hasn't made a truly great film since Mrs Doubtfire, and I'm afraid he stripped this powerful concept and tried to make it almost family friendly, with disastrous results. The adaptation itself is quite faithful, but Rent just isn't visually exciting or truthful enough. I enjoyed Rent for the music that I love so much, and the cast that did everything they could to make this a success. But in the end the finished product lies in the hands of the director, and he just wasn't imaginative enough to pull this off.

The bar has been set pretty high recently for the return of the modern musical. Rent should take your breath away and stay with you, like Chicago or Moulin Rouge!. Instead it just visits, and leaves no lingering impression. It feels dated and a little bit embarrassed about it. Considering the source material they had to work with, that's just unforgiveable.

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