Based on the 1996 Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning Broadway musical by the late Jonathan Larson, "Rent" has taken almost a decade to reach the silver screen. In a nutshell, the wait was well worth it. A beautifully produced adaptation that really puts the rock in its nearly constant rock-and-roll numbers, director Chris Columbus (2002's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
") has opened and expanded the scope for the film version, bringing an almost epic event feel to this grandly effective portrayal of addiction, poverty, love, illness and AIDS among eight twentysomething friends living in Manhattan's East Village, circa 1989-1990.
Set over approximately a year in the lives of these well-meaning, troubled bohemians, the eyes and ears of the piece are that of aspiring filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp), who watches as three of his best friendsnew lovers Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and heart-of-gold drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), and struggling musician/roommate Roger (Adam Pascal)come to terms with living day to day with AIDS. Roger, a former drug addict, falls in love with beautiful downstairs neighbor Mimi (Rosario Dawson), but her own reckless drug abuse puts to the test just how much he is willing to take when it becomes clear she may not be able, or willing, to quit.
Meanwhile, Mark tries to warn Joanne (Tracie Thoms) that his ex-girlfriendher current girlfriendtempting performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), has a legendary wandering eye. Joanne doesn't want to believe him at first, but it soon becomes clear that, although Maureen loves Joanne, it may not be enough for her to fully commit to their monogamous relationship. When one of their own ultimately succumbs to the AIDS epidemic, will this life-changing event make these friends realize before it's too late what is really important?
Although set fifteen years in the past, the serious topics touched upon in "Rent" are just as relevant, if not more so, in today's world, further blessing the picture with a timeless quality that anyone with an open mind to character's bursting into song should find difficult not to get caught up in. Close-minded individuals with personal prejudices against diversified sexual orientations need not attend, but for everyone else, "Rent" proves to be something of a groundbreakera wide-release studio motion picture without a big-name cast in which half the characters happen to be gay. It's nice to see in 2005, with director Chris Columbus remaining largely truthful to the stage show, even giving six of the eight original Broadway cast members the chance to reprise the roles. They originated them, after all, and seeing the film it becomes clear awfully quickly that no one could have done a better job than these actors. With a PG-13 rating, some of the language has been cleaned up and the depictions of drug use are fairly innocuous, but otherwise Columbus cuts no corners to present this story without compromise and in as clear-eyed a fashion as possible.
The plot threads running through "Rent" are involving in and of themselves, especially as they play out gradually over the liberal 135-minute running timethe quiet, introspective scenes set at the support group for people living with AIDS are the most touchingbut all is enhanced to a loftier degree thanks to the music. Over half of the dialogue is sunga rarity in modern film when studios have long shied away from musicalsand if there is any justice, a whole lot more will be made in the near future. "Rent" is the best movie musical since 2001's "Moulin Rouge
" (narrowly beating out other extremely fine entries like 2001's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," 2002's "Chicago
," and 2004's "The Phantom of the Opera
"), alive with such a boundless energy and joy that it is one of the year's most purely entertaining cinematic efforts.
Director Columbus wouldn't appear at first glance to be knowledgeable about how to make a musical (although his opening credits sequence with Elisabeth Shue dancing and lip-synching in 1987's "Adventures in Babysitting" was admittedly fun), but he pulls it off with great success. The camerawork by Stephen Goldblatt (2004's "Closer
") is exquisite pretty consistently, retaining a gritty feel while widening his scope and committing to a great deal of impressively rendered swooping camera shots. There is no sense of needless freneticism and flash MTV cutting, Goldblatt and Columbus trusting that the innovation within each shot and the superior level of acting and vocal performances will carry the musical numbers and tapestry of stories. The choreography by Keith Young (2003's "Something's Gotta Give
") is top-notch, as well.
Because of all of these elements, and because the songs themselves are so brilliantly written and memorably arranged and orchestrated, the musical numbers are show-stopping delights. In this respect, there isn't a weak song in sight, although some of the standouts include the curtain-opener "Seasons of Love;" the story proper's first number, "Rent;" the flirtatious love ballad, "Light My Candle;" the dizzyingly elaborate, awe-inspiring "Out Tonight" that segues into "Another Day;" the funny, complex bar-set "La Vie Boheme;" and the millennial American anthem "What You Own." One thing is certain: after this rapturous, unforgettable song listing, you won't be able to get them out of your head for a long time after.
The whole ensemble are terrific vocalists with a real talent in emoting, making the viewer believe in these people as characters, believe in their friendships and romances, and believe that they are really going through what their characters are. After their work here, they deserve to be catapulted into superstardom, none more than Anthony Rapp (2000's "Road Trip
"), who does Oscar-caliber work as the good-hearted, camera-wielding Mark. Narrating through the visuals he picks up while filming, Rapp is an astounding singer and wholly captivating whether he is the central focus of a song or simply in the background reacting. This could be just the film role he needs to make people finally perk up and take notice of this long-underrated performer. As Mimi, Rosario Dawson (2005's "Sin City
") is one of the two new actors taking over for her Broadway counterpart, and she slides into her role with such conviction and magnetism that the less informed would never be able to guess she didn't perform on Broadway along with her costars. The rest of the thespians are just as strong, with only Taye Diggs (2003's "Malibu's Most Wanted
") not getting much to do as Benny.
As a big-screen rock opera, and more generally, as a motion picture, "Rent" is an emotional, exhilarating experience, showing that song is every bit as powerfulmore, in many casesas the spoken word. With only a single scene putting a temporary lag on the paceMaureen's performance art set-piece, which could have been cut out without losing anything of importance"Rent" never stops moving, engrossing, emotionally hitting the right notes, and being ingeniously innovative in translating the stage show to the outside landscape of New York City. A toe-tapping, vividly articulated gem that in the privacy of one's home could have you up on your feet, singing along and jamming out, the film is a further shot of adrenaline for the musical genre, proving that the nearly lost art form deserves a comeback in a big way. "Rent" is destined to be on this reviewer's top ten list.