Directed by Chris Columbus, starring Rosario Dawson, Adam Pascall, Tracie Thoms, Jessie L Martin, Anthony Rapp, Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Idina Menzel.
The musical 'Rent' has become prime fodder for parody these days, with films, cartoons and sitcoms lining up to take shots at it. 'Rentheads' (as fans of the musical are known) will decry these as witless and low-brow attacks on Jonathan Larsson's masterpiece but, unfortunately, time has not been kind to his story of a group of bohemians living with HIV/AIDS in Manhattan.
Chris Columbus' ham-fisted direction certainly does not help matters. The transition from stage to screen can often be difficult, but enough plays and musicals have become successful movies to suggest that it can be done - and done well. Moreover, Columbus was handed a musical with a proven track-record, a pre-existing fan-base and most of the original cast (who have been almost deified by Rentheads), and he still failed.
There is a fundamental difference between the dynamics of stage and screen. The stage is, in the best way, interactive, especially in the case of musicals. If the actors hit the right notes, the audience will respond positively. If they blow it, the audience will howl. But with cinema, the performance is all one-way traffic. Thus, the film version of 'Rent' is instantly robbed of the electricity of live performance and is forced to succeed on what, it becomes clear, are very meagre merits. The massive flaws in story, character and music - while forgivable when the audience and the cast are in communion - are horribly visible on the screen.
A musical will live or die by its songs and, one or two songs excepted, the songs in 'Rent' are dreadful. At times, it is hard to believe that the music and the lyrics were designed to go together. When Roger (Pascall) and Mimi (Dawson) first meet he says, "I mean, you look familiar", and she replies, "Like your dead girlfriend?", while a bizarrely jaunty tune plays in the background. And there are very few musicians who could write a piece that could comfortably accommodate the line, "My T-Cells are low," without it sounding horribly contrived.
The only relationship that is at all engaging is the one between Tom Collins (Martin) and Angel Dumont (Heredia) and Angel's death is genuinely moving. But, once again, what little emotion is generated gets washed away. At Angel's funeral, the other characters' petty grievances erupt musically and are broken up when Collins sings, "You all said you'd be cool today." Another example of a blunderbuss of a song completely destroying a moment of real emotion.
'Rent' wanders aimlessly for more than two hours through a barrage of brain-numbing songs, by which time the viewer has lost all interest in the film and the characters. So, when the ending nears, the audience is no mood for it. It does not help, then, that it plumbs the lowest recesses of farce. It involves a deathbed scene in which one character talks, apparently sincerely, about moving towards a "warm, white light".
Columbus makes too little of the scenes involving the AIDS support group that some of the characters attend. In such scenes, the songs are not as irritating and the characters shed the brave facades they have constructed and sing honestly about their fears. These scenes provide a refreshing dose of reality in an otherwise comic book depiction of life as a New York bohemian in the 1980s.
But, overall, this film must be considered a failure. And blame for this failure must lie mostly with Columbus. But, even though the number of people who claim to have attended the original run of 'Rent' probably outstrips the number of people who claim to have seen U2 in the Dandelion Market, the film has shown just how poor the material was in the first place.
Barry J Whyte