Whatever happened to the glut of movie musicals that the success of Moulin Rouge and Chicago was supposed to have unleashed upon us? Although the door for the long-moribund genre was indeed nudged open by those films, it fortunately never opened wide enough to subject us to the like of Mamma Mia! The Film or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Reloaded. Instead, studios have been fairly scrupulous about what they'll let through, and with the arrival of Rent, that's proved to be a good thing.
When Chris "Mrs. Doubtfire" Columbus was announced as the director of the evergreen 1996 rock musical - which updated Puccini's starving-artists opera La Bohème to the East Village in the late 1980s - it seemed like a bad joke. Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese had been buzzing around the project for years and getting the show's fans all excited, only to run into the usual budget/artistic/Miramax problems, not to mention a cast that was slowly getting past its prime. Handing the play over to the family-friendly Columbus seemed like admitting that the subject matter - a welter of squatting artists, homosexuality, heroin addiction, AIDS, and untimely deaths - was going to get watered down. Somehow, that didn't happen. While he's made the musical considerably cinematic, Columbus has also shown a surprising appreciation and fidelity to the source material; he should have tried directing something without children years ago.
A gritty stew of low-life artsy grunge and soaring pathos, Rent is truly operatic in that its story will move some to tears and others to bewilderment. It opens in the East Village on Christmas Eve, 1989, with guitarist Roger (Adam Pascal) and filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) are trying to keep their newly-rich friend Benny (Taye Diggs) from tossing them out of the loft where he's been letting them live rent-free. The point of contention is a protest that performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), Mark's drama-queen former girlfriend who's now dating an uptight lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thomas), is going to hold in a vacant lot where Benny is trying to evict homeless people from. Also in the mix are heart-of-gold drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), anarchist professor Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and junkie/exotic dancer Mimi (Rosario Dawson). Inside the rough framework of the fight over the rent, the story follows the arc of three relationships - Roger and Mimi, Angel and Tom, and Maureen and Joanne - shadowed by death, whether from addiction or AIDS.
The best thing Columbus has going for him is the cast, most of whom are reprising their roles from the original Broadway production. The veterans all show that in the decade or so that's passed since then they've lost none of their sparkle, most especially Martin, whose too-brief but still overpowering presence (his eyes positively twinkle in his more romantic scenes with Heredia) shows he hasn't gotten lazy after all those cushy years over at Law and Order. Rapp provides the quietly sardonic counterpoint while Pascal amps up for the big rock numbers - fine for the most part even if his hairdo is more Bon Jovi cover band than Alphabet City punk. The newcomers, Thomas and Dawson, acquit themselves well, tearing up their big numbers with a gusto that some of the older performers don't always quite have.
Columbus and his co-writer Stephen Chbosky have trimmed about a half-hour's worth of material from the stage version, and the result is a tight piece of work that moves in muscular fashion from one showstopper to the next. Gone are most of the shorter interstitial numbers connecting the bigger songs, mostly replaced with some surprisingly funny dialogue. The play has been substantially opened up, especially in the mournful last third, and mostly for the best - one exception being a rather pointless Sarah Silverman cameo. Even though purists will argue with the addition of a scene revolving around a same-sex engagement party, it not only works dramatically but shows how the filmmakers are willing to go out of their way to up the culture war ante. The pieces that haven't survived the transition from stage to screen quite as well are the ones requiring audience involvement: both Angel's big entrance song and Maureen's protest number fall completely flat in a movie theater.
Given that the current mood of the movie is either wink-wink or pastiche - Moulin Rogue, Chicago, The Producers - there's no telling how audiences will react to such a full-bore emotional work, full of tears, betrayal, death scenes, and throat-scorching arias. It would be a lie to say that Rent isn't at times all a bit much. It would also be a lie to say that it's not also one of the most refreshingly exuberant films of the year.
And they shut off the electricity, too.