Rent (2005)

Dir. Chris Columbus. Starring Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Rosario Dawson

I am afraid to type the following sentence, but it deserves to be said:

Rent, as a film, deserves another chance. You have no idea how much I wish I didn’t mean that, unless you’ve read my thoughts on “What You Own” – so in other words, you have no idea how much I wish I didn’t mean that. But it’s true. If we can put Peter Pan and Bye Bye Birdie on primetime television and make Into the Woods a Christmas opening, then we probably deserve another Rent. 

Let’s face it. There are some key reasons why Rent the film was a bust despite its status as the most important musical of the ’90s and the most beloved musical between Phantom of the Opera and Hamilton. (I’ve just thrown Miss Saigon and Wicked  respectively, under the bus and I’m not sorry.)

The cast, despite maintaining six of eight cast members from the original Broadway show (replacing Daphne Rubin-Vega with Rosario Dawson and Fredi Walker with Tracie Thoms), doesn’t seem to fit the film. The problem is that all of those people, even the baby-faced Rapp, look like they’re in their thirties. Part of what makes the show work is the youth of its characters, people who could conceivably be just out of college or just breaking into their real lives and who are doing a just terrible job of it. By 24, 25, 26 years old, it’s believable that Roger might be ready to give up on making his mark as a musician, it’s believable that Mark might still be nursing his ambitions as a filmmaker, and it’s believable that Maureen thinks she can mkae a difference with protests. As for Mimi, the nineteen-year-old: Dawson was 26 when she played her, the age that just about everyone else in the movie was when they hit Broadway in 1996. As much as I love having Rapp/Pascal moments, and as much as I enjoy getting late-peak Idina, and as good as Wilson Jermaine Heredia was as Angel – I wrote five or six years ago that he might have deserved an Oscar nod in a fairly weak year for Supporting Actor, and I still think that’s true – it weakens the film. These characters look less like badly transitioning GenXers than they do bums. Walker wasn’t offered the part of Joanie because she was “too old” at 43, but when everyone else looks old, why not?

The fact that this became a movie in 2005 as opposed to 1998 or ’99 hurts as well. Like virtually every other musical ever made, New York is a supporting character in Rent. As everyone knows, New York changed mightily in the decade between Rent‘s first Broadway performance and Rent‘s debut in theaters, and I don’t think that change is limited just to 9/11. The Manhattan of 1989 and 1990 was familiar to New York theatergoers a few years out. The Manhattan of 1989 and 1990 is absolutely foreign to national moviegoers in 2005; it would have been foreign to any number of the people who gentrified Alphabet City at about the same time. This is to say nothing of the social issues that are being discussed in the film which were much more prevalent in the ’90s. In the early 2000s, homosexuality was not a topic for regular nice folks, but they could watch it on television thanks to a show like Will and Grace. AIDS was still scary, but it was not the immediate death sentence that it had been in the ’80s and real efforts were being made in terms of educating young people; I remember being in middle school in 2005 and getting my umpteenth health lesson about how HIV/AIDS works, how it’s spread, and how people with HIV/AIDS should not be made pariahs. In short, the two issues that Rent expends its energy on positively (although drugs are discussed, they are relegated to the back seat) were in weird transitional phases in the public dialogue.

For its own part, the film makes no real effort to feel raw or realistic or historical either. There are individual episodes of Mad Men that do a better job making us feel like we’re in the middle of New York poverty than Rent does, as does the original FameRent on film is like college where nobody goes to class which, again, pounds home the fact that the actors are just old for this. Rent the film is a great reunion tour, but that’s all it is…and it’s all it looks like, too.

The biggest problem by a wide margin is not the cast, though, and it’s not even the time period that the film was released in. It’s the director, Chris Columbus, who appears to have forgotten that he wasn’t shooting another Harry Potter movie. The early-mid 2000s are not exactly a banner moment for movie musicals – Rob Marshall wasn’t Bob Fosse then, and he sure as heckfire isn’t Bob Fosse now – but Chris Columbus was just a terrible choice. Interviews with him seem to imply that he didn’t want the movie to be too depressing. Moments that would have illuminated the time and place, such as “Christmas Bells,” were cut. April’s death, which is referred to explicitly in the play as a bloody suicide, is a flashback with some room for imagination. The movie wants you to feel bad, but it refuses to take the action to a place that would actually force the viewer to hurt a little bit. In this context, Angel’s death feels meaningless, and not in a good “no one cares” kind of meaningless. It feels meaningless to the continuation of the film; when she goes, I honestly didn’t know I was supposed to care all that much. Angel is only in a few sequences and doesn’t seem any more important than anyone else. It’s because most of what Angel does that isn’t singing is removed from the equation, and the singing does not evince any of Angel’s endless capacity for caring. It’s symptomatic of Columbus’ approach, a “first past the post” view of emotion, rather than the total flooding that makes Rent worthwhile when it’s done well. Rent is theatrical even for a musical, and Columbus and company spent most of their effort making the sets baroque rather than the feeling.

Place all this on top of the structural issues of the original property (that’s you, “La Vie Boheme,” and that’s you too, “Your Eyes” – at least I can remember the tune of “La Vie Boheme”), and you have a huge mess. It’s no wonder that Rent was panned.

Fortunately…maybe unfortunately…that means that Rent deserves a fair shake at another movie. Here’s me manifesto:

  1. Les Miserables proved that we’re ready for gritty musicals. Even though Les Miserables was absolutely the wrong musical to decide to try that with first, Rent would benefit from the same kind of grimy approach that Les Miserables took, and would do much better with it. Because the show is so intimate, and because the show doesn’t require operatic vocal feats to reach its peak, a shoot that prioritizes on-site setting and allows actors to sing on camera, flaws and all, would hit home. Les Miserables, funnily enough, also prepared us to deal with a movie that was almost entirely singing. Rent loses some of its better sung moments to dialogue, but Rent-2017 would hold fast to 95% singing.
  2. The voicemails for home phone that lend structure to the play didn’t make it into the film, which I can understand. They aren’t good for the movies, really. They’re kind of clever on stage but they’re too easy to make boring on screen. But at the same time, most people still had home phones and voice machines in 2005. No one has that now. It’s the kind of little change that makes the idea of Rent-2017: A Period Piece surprisingly interesting. I’m not suggesting that LGBTQ rights or HIV/AIDS or drugs aren’t issues anymore, because I didn’t drink a big glass of stupid juice this morning. But in 1996, those were controversial topics because extending better rights and care to all three of those groups was generally looked down on. In 2016, they’re controversial because Americans have made a swing to accepting and embracing those groups. We are in a totally different place. In 2005, those were more uncomfortable issues because we saw both sides too well, and Rent the film is mealy-mouthed in return. I think people would be far more open to – and far better at working with – a Rent that looks back at a time when the conventional wisdom on social issues was very different, and easier for us to see as history.
  3. We wouldn’t cast Lin-Manuel Miranda, even though someone would want to, because we’d want to open the door to a new, even more diverse group of Millennials to play young people in a show that is fundamentally about the mistakes and surprises of being young. (Who am I kidding, Miranda would get offered Collins before they even finished a script. Same as it ever was!)

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