For many, the power of the musical Rent lay in the immediacy
of the characters’ problems. It spoke to a generation of young
people who had seen the havoc that Reaganomics and AIDS caused for
the people around them. As a bright-eyed 23-year-old, I don’t
understand the troubles of these young bohemians. The New York I’ve
seen is a newer (some would say gentrified) model. Rudy
Guiliani (for better or for worse) cleaned up the city.
He got rid of the windshield wiper guys and, to quote a friend,
those “sweet-ass strip joints” on 42nd St. Now, New
York is place where, theoretically speaking, the whole family can
walk around, catch a show, shop at the Disney store, and hopefully
not get mugged. Moreover, AIDS these days isn’t so much a
specter as a disease that for many is easily treatable. Not many
friends I know, gay or straight, have had a friend die in their
arms. Because of this change in the cultural climate, Rent
doesn’t seem so much immediate as dated and preachy.
Rent is the story of a group of bohemian, counterculture
artists who can’t seem to pay their rent. The film opens on
a stage (literally) with the characters singing “Seasons of
Love.” From then on we see their lives unfold over the course
of a year that spans from the Christmas Eves of 1989 to 1990. In
the group we have Mark (Rapp), the documentary
director who is still hung up on his girlfriend, performance artist
Maureen (Menzel). Maureen has run off with Joanne
(Thoms), an upper-crust, African-American lawyer.
Mark has a roommate, Roger (Pascal), an HIV-positive,
Bon Jovi-ish rock singer who can’t finish
a song. Roger is in love with Mimi (Dawson), the
sexy 19-year-old stripper, who is a junkie and is also HIV-positive.
Another couple of lovers who are also friends with the group, Tom
Collins (Martin) and drag queen Angel (Heredia),
are both HIV-positive as well. The shared enemy among this bunch
is Bennie (Diggs), a former bohemian who married
into money and is now their landlord. Essentially, the plot’s
recipe, for the uninitiated, take is Puccini’s
La Bohème, add American political commentary, and
stir. The result, at least in the film (I haven’t had the
pleasure of seeing the musical), is an overly loud, smug film that
is too mired in message to really entertain. It will teach you a
lesson dammit, even if it kills you.
My first inclination would be to blame director Chris
Columbus, and while his pedestrian directing doesn’t
help liven up the proceedings, a great deal of the problem is with
Jonathan Larson’s rock-driven score. While
he was a good writer with an ear for creating emotion through his
music, he also has a tendency to let his politics become too overbearing.
We get it, they’re Artists, with a Vision. Their biggest fear
in life is Selling Out. The problem is that this message comes off
as disingenuous from a bunch of wealthy kids who are slumming in
The one scene that encapsulated this sentiment for me has Mark,
with his friends in tow, is taking documentary footage of a homeless
woman being woken up and kicked off the street by the cops. Instead
of indulging Mark and his friends, she launches into a short rant
about how she doesn’t want to be some sort of cause for these
artists. She basically insinuates that they have no idea about her
situation. To add insult to injury, she asks at the end of spiel,
“Do you have a dollar?” When it becomes obvious that
these guys have none, she says, “You artists never do.”
It’s scenes like these (and Maureen’s ridiculous performance
art/protest) that make me think that Jonathan Larson took a tongue-in-cheek
view of the bohemian life. But then the song “La Vie Boheme”
cranks up and it becomes apparent that Larson is probably earnest.
It seems like he loves these characters, even though they come off
as spoiled children. I enjoy political activism thoroughly, but
I just don’t see any of these characters putting their money
where their mouths are.
That’s not to say that the movie is all bad. In fact, not
surprisingly, the performances are top-notch, probably because the
actors (except Dawson and Thoms) were able to perfect their performances
as original members of the 1996 Rent stage cast. They all have beautiful
voices and a true focus on their characters, which makes them a
joy to watch as actors even if their characters grate. The standout
is Dawson, whose Mimi is the perfect combination of kink, ragged
edges, and innocence. It’s a credit to her prowess as an actress
that she can outshine the original Rent actors with a sterling performance.
With actors like these, it’s a shame that the film Rent could
not rise to the heights that these folks are capable of reaching.