As a modern rock opera appearing on Broadway, Jonathan Larson’s Rent sets such contemporary issues as AIDS, poverty, sexual orientation and relationships against the background of eight struggling “bohemians” in New York’s East Village. It also addresses questions we all ask ourselves, such as “What am I doing with my life?” and “Who do I share it with?”
The Sony Pictures recent adaptation, directed by Chris Columbus, surprisingly maintains a rating of PG-13 despite mature issues and a steamy striptease. Columbus brings “Rent” to life on screen, far more than the stage allows, but on screen, “Rent” appeals most to those already familiar with it.
The transition from stage to big screen has seen much success, with recent movie versions of Chicago and Phantom of the Opera. It was only a matter of time for Rent, one of the longest running musicals on Broadway, to make its way to the big screen.
Columbus made a point to cast six of the eight main characters from the original Broadway production of Rent in an attempt to retain some of the original magic and ease the story’s transition from stage to screen. Angel (Wilson Heredia), Roger (Adam Pascal), Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp), Benny (Taye Diggs), Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and Maureen (Idina Menzel) transformed from stage characters to on-screen stars quite well.
Rosario Dawson (“Sin City”) surprised critical Rent fans as a newcomer in her role of Mimi. Dawson not only brings a raw, real passion to the role, but her voice fits the role perfectly. Tracie Thoms, another newcomer to the musical, brings an incredible voice and saucy attitude to the role of Joanne.
In the opening scene, the eight main characters sing “Seasons of Love,” the movie’s catchy anthem, in the same manner as done in the version on Broadway. Within the first minute, the transition of Rent as a rock opera/Broadway musical to a big-screen adaptation occurs.
This understanding, orchestrated by Columbus, is key to the acceptance of all the songs, characters and staging not on Broadway, but on the big screen.
Many songs, such as “La Vie Boheme,” copy the Broadway staging exactly, while others, such as “Life Support,” use cinematic advantages to enhance the scene and alter its staging.
What makes the movie a stronger version of the Broadway play are precisely the cinematic advantages Columbus uses so well. On stage, the set is constrained by physical restrictions; while on the big screen, each scene is set in a more realistic location, making each scene easier to differentiate and understand the viewer to better understand the story.
The camera lens allows the audience to get physically closer to the characters. When Tom Collins is mugged, we see the blood and the pain. When Roger struggles to write a song, we see his fingers stumble along the frets of the guitar. These closeups, allowed only on the big screen, add to the emotional attachment to the characters, something the Broadway play lacks.
There is a superb emotional attachment accomplished between the actors and the viewers that is most strongly felt with Angel. A drag queen with AIDS who lives and works on the streets and falls in love with Tom Collins, Angel is a constant source of humor until his suffering from AIDS causes many tears from the audience.
With the death of Angel, there is a moment of darkness in the movie theater that is the quietest three seconds of any movie. With such creative use of songs and music, the power of those few soundless seconds stands as a testament to the power of this movie. Angel’s funeral and the following scene feature an outpouring of raw emotion and love as the viewer strengthens their emotional attachment with the eight main characters.
“Rent” is better on screen than on stage. The audience gets closer with the characters and intertwined in their story and in the process, for just more than two hours, becomes a struggling bohemian. The nature of “Rent” as a musical about struggling twenty-somethings and as a graphic movie about the AIDS epidemic limits its audience. Even those unfamiliar with “Rent” will not be disappointed with either the music or the images of real life.
“Rent” is in theaters nationwide.