Montreal Film Journal

RENT

Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand
Six Hundred Minutes
Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand
Moments So Dear
Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand
Six Hundred Minutes

How Do You Measure - Measure A Year?

In Daylights - In Sunsets
In Midnights - In Cups Of Coffee
In Inches - In Miles
In Laughter - In Strife

How About Loooooooove?
How About Loooooooove?
How About Loooooooove?


These are some of the lyrics of Seasons Of Love, the opening number of RENT, the big screen adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson's hit Broadway musical that has been running since 1996. That first tune perfectly sets up what's to come, the daylights and the sunsets, the laughter and the strife, the Loooooooove! RENT is an unabashedly romantic story, in spite or because of its subject matter. Poverty, drug addiction and AIDS are painful realities for the characters, yet they still manage to conjure the will to not only love but sing their heart out about it!

This is definitely not for everyone but dammit, it should be. I can't wrap my mind around the fact that so many people deprive themselves of the sheer pleasure of losing yourself in the magical world of musicals. Everybody loves music after all, and we all love the movies, right? Then what better than mixing the two art forms together? Dialogue's okay, but there's so much more passion in song and dance!

For those who aren't familiar with RENT, it's sort of a modern retelling of Puccini's 1896 opera "La Bohème", set in New York circa 1989-1990. It deals with a group of starving artists who are threatened with eviction by Benny (Taye Diggs), a former friend who married their landlord's daughter. Roger (Adam Pascal) is an ex-junkie musician whose girlfriend died; his filmmaker roommate Mark (Anthony Rapp)'s girlfriend is still alive, but she has dumped him, for another woman at that. The lucky lady is lawyer Joanne (Traci Thoms), but she's starting to realize it might not be such a blessing to go out with Maureen (Idina Menzel), a shamelessly flirtatious performance artist. Then there's Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a gay philosophy teacher who finds his soul mate in Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drum-playing drag queen with AIDS, and finally Mimi (Rosario Dawson), an heroin-addicted dancer with "the best ass below 14th street".



There's not much plot beside the various romances and the protest against the eviction, so practically the whole running time is devoted to developing the characters. Safe for Benny, the bad guy of the piece, we wind up intensely loving everyone on screen. RENT is about love but also friendship, about forming your own little family with other beautiful misfits. This all comes through very effectively, as does what we imagine must have been the feel of the East Village in the late 1980s. The movie has some flaws, most of them having to do with Chris Columbus' limp direction, but the material is so strong that it punches through the flat cinematography and uninspired staging.

The cast is uniformly amazing, but special mention must be made of Rosario Dawson. It doesn't come as a surprise that she's sexy as hell in RENT, but who knew she had such a great voice? All her numbers are memorable, especially Light My Candle and the other ones she shares with romantic interest Adam Pascal. I also love when Jesse L. Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia croon I'll Cover You to each other, Idina Menzel and Traci Thoms's fiery girl-on-girl duet Take Me or Leave Me, Anthony Rapp's Tango: Maureen, the group showstopper La Vie Boheme... I basically adored every song, with the possible exception of What You Own, which suffers, among other things, of playing over a clumsy montage.

RENT is packed with catchy songs and moving performances and, had it been helmed by a Baz Luhrmann or a John Cameron Mitchell, it could have been a masterpiece. Columbus' picture is not as fluid or eye-popping as it could have been, but it's still pretty damn rousing and emotionally affecting - I know I cried much more than I'm comfortable owning up to. I doubt the film will convert any musical haters, but it should please fans of the genre.

There's Only Us
There's Only This
Forget Regret Or Life Is Yours To Miss
No Other Road No Other Way
No Day But Today

11/22/2005