It's the stuff of Broadway lore. A playwright struggles to get his deeply personal work on the stage, lands an off-Broadway venue for it, and then races to meet the world premiere, only to be felled by an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm less than a month before the debut. The playwright was Jonathan Larson, the stage was the New York Theater Workshop and the play was "Rent," which told its tale of AIDS, love, poverty and the bohemian lifestyle for the first time on February 13, 1996.
That same year it won four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and now, nearly a decade and almost 4,000 performances later, the acclaimed and moving production arrives on home video after hitting the big screen in a musical of the same name at the end of 2005. Having never seen the original theatrical production, I can't compare the two versions, and thus any "Rent-heads" out there should accept that I won't know what's been added, deleted or otherwise altered beyond what the press kit indicates.
Based on/inspired by Puccini's opera "La Boheme," the movie -- like many other offerings of its genre -- immediately needs a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief since the characters suddenly break into song to deliver much of the film's dialogue, exposition and such. Films like "Chicago" and "Moulin Rouge!" got away with that a bit more since they were period pieces and used a lot of imagination in the staging of said numbers.
This one also takes place in the past -- it spans a year starting in the late winter of 1989 -- but it obviously feels more contemporary than those recent predecessors, and most of the musical bits (aside from a fun tango fantasy/dream) are presented in a rather straightforward manner. The first few such moments felt a little odd and/or forced to me (in that standard movie musical fashion), but the songs, lyrics and performances eventually won me over, affecting me in a way that actually took me by surprise.
Although lacking the polish and "big" star power of "Chicago," I actually enjoyed this film to a greater extent, mainly because it contains much more of an emotional punch. And while I was only familiar with the stage production's signature song, "Seasons of Love" ("Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes..."), I found most of the multitude of songs -- that approach that of a rock opera at times but aren't quite as brash -- entertaining and even touching.
That's not to say that there aren't problems. With six of the original eight performers reprising their roles (only Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms weren't part of the first cast), it's a bit hard to accept them playing characters that are supposed to be a decade younger than they appear.
Some, with their good genes, still possess enough of a youthful appearance to make it work, but others are obviously too mature looking for their parts. Yet, since they first embodied and became them over a varying number of performances, they feel quite comfortable in their characters.
Then there's the fact that the plot -- despite being loaded with all sorts of thematic material including but not limited to AIDS, heroin junkies, poverty and the notion of "selling out" -- isn't terribly complex. Even so, director Chris Columbus (the first two "Harry Potter" and "Home Alone" films) -- who works from Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of Larson's original words -- does an above average job of making the material flow reasonably well throughout the two-plus hour runtime. While the staging of most of the numbers is for the most part very theatrically-based, the filmmaker keeps the camera moving but allows the performers to carry the material without overshadowing them with too many tricks.
Among them, Dawson shines as the exotic dancer and junkie who similarly can't afford the rent just like her upstairs neighbors played by Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal (who's also quite good in his role as a former junkie whose resultant emotional scar tissue from his girlfriend's death keeps him from feeling).
Jesse L. Martin is also impressive (but looks the oldest) as the returning teacher with AIDS who falls for the energetic but similarly infected sparkplug played with vigor by Wilson Jermaine Heredia. While Taye Diggs can't do a lot with his slightly villainous character, his real-life wife, Idina Menzel, is the vibrant protest performance artist who's now playing for the "other team" with Thoms' lawyer character.
While I have no idea how a musical about HIV, gays and lesbians, drug use, a cross dresser and an overall bohemian lifestyle and mindset will play in America's heartland, if viewers suspend their disbelief and preconceived notions of such matters and people, I think it might just win them over with its stirring performances and musical numbers. It certainly caught me off guard, touching me in an emotional manner that I clearly wasn't expecting.