Rent (Widescreen Edition) Review
How can you connect in an age where strangers, landlords, lovers, your own blood cells betray? What binds the fabric together when the raging, shifting winds of change keep ripping away?
Rent is a musical film, adapted from an award-winning Broadway show. The story is based on La Bohème and follows a year in the lives of a group of new Bohemians, living in the Lower East Side of New York in 1989/90. The flatmates at the centre of this social grouping are Mark (Anthony Rapp) and Roger (Adam Pascal). Mark wants to make documentary films, while Roger is a musician trying to cope with the discovery that he is HIV-positive through prior drug use. The pair live in a loft-style apartment that's dark and dingy and the only reason they've even been able to stay there is because a previous flatmate, Benny (Taye Diggs) had promised them use of the apartment for free. However, at the start of the film Benny shows up to demand rent – he's married into a rich family and now seems to spend more time representing his father-in-law's interests than pursuing his own artistic nature. Mimi (Rosario Dawson) lives below Roger and Mark and works as a dancer, she's also HIV-positive and she's also still addicted to drugs, but she embraces a philosophy of living each day as if it's the last, unlike Roger who she's taken a fancy to. Maureen (Idina Menzel) is Mark's ex-girlfriend, a performance artist who is now dating Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a lawyer. The final members of the tight-knit group are Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) – they meet at the beginning of the film and through mutual attraction they quickly become a pairing.
That's quite a lot of characters to get your head around, and the ties between them are sometimes a little complex – for example, there are hints in the film that Mimi was once dating Benny (something which is much more obvious in the stage production). But the truth is, however complicated it looks on paper, it's not that hard to work out once you see the story of the relationships between these people unfolding, and it's been simplified if anything, for the film version of the show.
Onto business though, if you can't stand musicals where songs burst out from ordinary dialogue, then Rent isn't for you. The stage production was more operetta than musical with barely any dialogue at all and perhaps Columbus's main change for the cinematic approach has been to turn various songs and joining-pieces into dialogue that enables the characters a little more room to act. An example of this is 'Happy New Year', a song from the stage production that is turned into dialogue here. I happen to think these changes are fine and help add something to the film, though I know a lot of fans of the show who will probably disagree.
Rent deals with some difficult topics; AIDS, drugs, prejudice as well as with friendship, love and the bonds between people. Jonathan Larson, the show's creator who tragically died the night before the opening of the show, wanted a fitting tribute for his friends that had died of AIDS and found, through the story of La Bohème, a way to put his message of hope across. The songs are firmly based in rock and pop and a move away from more traditional musicals, more in the tradition of Hair than Annie. The diverse musical numbers allow for emotional and expressive lyrics and bring life to what may otherwise seem a slightly trite message of 'No Day But Today'. My personal favourites include 'Light My Candle', 'What You Own' and 'Take Me or Leave Me' and to be honest, I thought all the musical numbers were treated well here, although watching the number 'Rent' was a little peculiar, perhaps because I couldn't quite get past the singing while cycling – in my defence it's at the very start of the film, before there's a chance to get sucked into the action and forget the bursting-into-song moments.
The direction is fairly straightforward and the film maintains a fairly stagey feel rather than a gritty reality, but much of that is the bursting-into-song moments. There are some nice touches for those that know the stage version well, Maureen's performance art presentation gives a nod to the metal Christmas tree set, as does Mimi's placement on a metal table towards the end of the action, and the choreography of many numbers are very close to the originals. Yet despite this, I felt the film was lacking some of the raw emotion of the stage performances – and some of this comes down to the cast.
Chris Columbus states over and over in the commentary how lucky he was to be able to bring back together the majority of the Broadway cast of the show (only Dawson and Thoms replace original cast members from the core cast) because of the already strong connections between the actors and their characters. I think in some cases he was lucky. Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs all show off their skills admirably, adding nuances to the characters that I can't imagine being so natural from other performers. They also get to show off their acting skills more than on stage as the cameras allow a more intimate picture of their characters. Adam Pascal does a pretty good job as the tortured musician, Roger – but with a hint of melodrama that suits a stage more. Anthony Rapp doesn't bear up to the camera's scrutiny as well as some of the others, but reprises his role with dedication and skill. In fact, the biggest problem becomes how much older Rapp and Pascal look now. Though, I'm sure to anyone coming to this fresh, it may not be as noticeable. Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson are great in their roles, they fit in with the original cast admirably and also manage to add something new into the mix.
There's a lot of good things about Rent but yet there's something there that holds me back from saying it's a great film. The cast and the songs may work well, but there's something missing on a more subtle, emotional level. In the theatre, Rent was raw and full of passion – some of Larson's work that may have become tempered in the evolution of the show have instead become preserved due to his death, leaving some of the numbers decidedly less polished than others. In the film, Columbus has polished the edges and taken away some of this raw passion – pitching the film instead at the PG-13 audience and in the end this detracts from the film as a whole.
The widescreen (2.40:1) anamorphic transfer presented here really shows off the film and its cinematography to full effect. Colours are vibrant and clear throughout, skin tones are natural and blacks are suitably solid. Even in the darkest of scenes details are noticeable. I didn't detect any grain problems, just a touch of edge enhancement that could be spotted at times. Overall, it's a very nice transfer, which you might expect given that this was in American cinemas only a few months ago.
Rent's soundtrack needs to work particularly hard to bring the music to life and I'm glad to report the Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation gets the job done well. The sound quality is very good with no noticeable distortion at all. The track gets a proper directionality workout and presents the rock-infused score with a depth that really makes it feel like the music is all around. The music is loud and rocking, but the vocals are clear and audible throughout, whether as dialogue or lyrics. It's not just the music that gets a good treatment here though, background noise also works very well within this soundtrack.
Despite the speed from cinema to disc, the DVD package is actually pretty robust with interesting and informative extras. The main extra is a commentary with director Chris Columbus and cast members Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal. The commentary is fairly lively and covers a lot of ground, but it's sometimes a little hard to distinguish who's speaking, although I found myself working it out by context. They discuss the cast, the quality of cinematography (a lot) and all the various scenes that needed amending (or not) to avoid the dreaded R rating. Obviously, there's also a fair bit of comment about changes from the stage play, and Rapp seems to delight in pointing out glitches and goofs (something that the others pick up on). It's not a bad commentary, there's no quiet spaces and none of the three have monotone voices – also it covers a lot of ground.
The remaining extras reside on the second disc of this set. The most substantial of these is a feature-length (109 mins) documentary 'No Day But Today'. It can either be watched in segments or through a 'play all' selection and tells the tale of Jonathan Larson as well as the origins of Rent. The documentary features Larson's friends, family, Rent cast members, producers and original director Michael Greif. Although Larson's history really shows how the writer/composer came to create Rent and works through his early pieces and his experiences of friends contracting HIV and AIDS. The piece really kicks in though when it gets to the development of Rent, detailing the show from conception to opening off-Broadway and Larson's tragic death from an aortic aneurism the night before the premiere. You can't help but be touched at the tragedy of a young, talented man dying just before all his dreams were about to come true, and this documentary produces a good mix of interesting facts with interviews from those who were involved in Rent's phenomenal success when it eventually came to Broadway and then toured around the world.
There are five deleted scenes with optional commentary. As with the documentary you can watch them all separately or using a 'play all' feature. Chris Columbus does do a good job of explaining why he excised these, primarily musical, scenes from the film. And if you're a fan of the show, you'll be glad to see here versions of 'Hallowe'en' and 'Goodbye Love'. I'm not sure I fully agree with Columbus that these songs are better out of the film, because they do add quite a lot of depth to the character of Mark and let him not stand out on the sidelines so much. But, excised they were – and at least they've been preserved here for anyone who wants to watch them. Attached to the deleted scenes is an alternate ending (making the fifth of the deleted scenes actually). It morphs the final scene into showing the characters on stage again, as they opened the film – it doesn't work though and was thankfully switched.
Two public service announcements also make up extras on this disc (and yes, I think I will take just a moment to complain that they used an apostrophe in 'PSA's'[sic]). There's an announcement about the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation and the other is for the National Marfan Foundation. Not wanting to knock them, I'll simply say that I doubt many viewers will be all that interested, but I can understand why they've been included here.
The final extra is a series of trailers for Benchwarmers, Marie Antoinette, The Da Vinci Code, The Legend of Zorro, Freedomland, Fun with Dick & Jane, Memoirs of a Geisha. Strangely enough, the trailer for Rent isn't included, but I seem to be seeing this more regularly in extra packages recently, so I suppose I shouldn't really have been surprised at all.
Rent is a relatively successful transfer of a popular (and almost cult) musical from Broadway to the screen. The fact that it comprises the majority of the original cast is certain to bring it a ready-made audience from the many fans of the show, and the extras package alone deserves this. The extras are interesting and allow newcomers to the musical to get a basic understanding of the history of the show and why so many people are tied to it on an emotional level.