"In 525,600 minutes / how do you measure a year in the life? / How about love?" ("Seasons of Love" from Rent)
Like all rock operas before it -- Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, and Hair to name a few -- Rent isn't a film that will appeal to everyone. It isn't a happy feel-good movie where the singing takes place in between bouts of dialogue. Quite often, in Rent, the dialogue is sung ... the story, told in a succession of musical vignettes, is dark and gritty.
Based on Puccini's La Boheme, Rent tells the story of one year in the life of friends living the Bohemian life in modern day East Village New York. The film opens on an empty theater with the main characters onstage singing the musical's signature number, "Seasons of Love." After this brief introduction to their faces, we are thrust into the cold night of the story's beginnings.
As Christmas Eve 1989 dawns on the denizens of Avenue A in New York City, we meet eight people who seemingly have nothing in common...other than a desire to live their lives to the fullest regardless of sacrifice.
Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp) is a struggling filmmaker who has decided to shoot a documentary about what goes on around him...his 525,600 minutes in the world. His roommate Roger Davis (Adam Pascal) is a musician who, after struggling through years as a junkie, is trying to write his one last great song. He is enchanted by their downstairs neighbor, Mimi Marquez (Rosario Dawson), a 19-year old S&M stripper who is also a junkie. He is deeply attracted to her, but has no desire to be drawn back into the world of drugs -- especially since he's already lost a girlfriend to them.
En route to meet with Mark and Roger for Christmas, Thomas "Tom" Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a computer teacher, is jumped by a group of homeless men for his jacket. Badly beaten, he is rescued by Angel Shunard (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a flamboyantly gay drag queen. The two eventually fall in love and set up house together.
Mark's ex-flame Maureen Johnson (Idina Menzel) is a performance artist. She is a free-spirited loose cannon that both bewitches and infuriates her current lover, lawyer Joanne Jefferson (Tracie Thoms). Maureen is working on a one-woman conceptual show to protest the impending destruction of a homeless tenement on Avenue A. This inconveniences Benjamin "Benny" Coffin III (Taye Diggs), a former roommate of Mark and Roger, who has married into high society and plans to turn the tenement space into a digital arts studio.
As we follow the eight through their year, we find out some are HIV+. This eventually impacts the dynamics of the group, as they lose a beloved member to AIDS. In 1989, when the story takes place, HIV and AIDS were still relatively new diseases, but even today, over fifteen years later, the topic still holds a huge relevance in life as we know it.
There are also huge secrets being kept by various members of the group...secrets that will lead some to find they have more in common than originally thought.
Rent deals with a variety of hot topics -- AIDS, homosexuality, bisexuality, drugs -- but it does so in a no holds bar way. It doesn't glamourize the issues, but it doesn't exploit them either. Relationships are also presented without apologies, explanations or sugar coating. They just are what they are...take it or leave it.
"Take me for what I am / who I was meant to be" -- ("Take Me Or Leave Me" from Rent)
The performances by the actors are simply amazing and even fearless. I particularly enjoyed the storyline between Mimi and Roger. As the characters, Dawson and Pascal generate so much heat and angst that some scenes just broke my heart, while others had me waiting for the next kiss. Angel's storyline also broke my heart ... so much so, that I spent most of the last half hour of the film silently crying during the film.
But while it breaks your heart, Rent and its characters make a point to convey that no matter what happens in life if you count your blessings, it makes the bad bearable. As Maureen states at one point in the film, "Angel used to say that he was lucky for knowing all of us...but we were the lucky ones." It emphasizes that these characters survive because they have friends to catch them when they fall. They have people who love them and look out for them. And it tackles two of life's most significant questions: "What do I want to do with my life?" and "Who am I going to spend it with?"
It's not all weepy moments, though. Set in a cafe, the defiant "La Vie Boheme", is sassy and vibrant romp that involves all of the characters. In the theater, it illicited several boisterous laughs from the audience. There are also seemingly random lighthearted moments, like Mark and Roger's answering machine, that keep the story from being overwhelmingly maudlin.
Since its debut onstage ten years ago, Rent has become one of the longest running shows on Broadway. It was the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Obie Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, four Tony Awards and three Drama Desk awards.
Director Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) has done a fine job with this film adaptation of the musical. In casting the movie, it may have been tempting to cast big box office names as the main eight, but in the end, he decided to go with the original cast -- with a few changes. All of the eight actors in the movie originally played the roles on Broadway, with the exception of Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Tracie Thoms as Joanne. Some fans of the Broadway version may have issues with this, but I think on film, the chemistry between the new additions and the established roster is electrifying.
This movie challenges you and moves you. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry...and most importantly, it makes you care, not just about these eight people, but about the joy of life itself. I immediately called my close friends afterwards and told them I was glad they were in my life.
Rent is not always an easy movie to watch -- but it is an easy movie to love, if you give it a chance.
Cast: Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Tracie Thoms
Director: Chris Columbus
Rated: PG-13 [mature thematic material involving drugs and sexuality; brief naked backside shot; and for some strong language]
Rating Score: 8.5 out of 10