In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens
BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - March 31, 2006 - 12:00am
From the very beginning of his hiring, Chris Columbus adapting Jonathan Larson’s Rent for the screen, the past decade’s seminal musical of American theater, was like having Lindsay Lohan cover Debbie Harry: it was bound to be an exercise of plasticity over authenticity. Columbus is not a particularly awful filmmaker, just a very safe and bland one, which, with material like this, could have proved as disastrous. He treats the Puccini-in-Alphabet-City rock opera of the East Village’s HIV-stricken artists with as much laborious pointlessness as he could muster, and even though I couldn’t deny his reverence to Larson’s work, I couldn’t help thinking what a filmmaker like Fernando Meirelles, or Alejandro González Iñárritu, or Lars von Trier would’ve done with the material. Columbus (who has directed such deliriously avant-garde chestnuts as Home Alone, Bicentennial Man and the first two Harry Potter films) felt like the final validating nail in Rent’s coffin of pop-culture evolution from off-Broadway experiment to the venerated blah of mainstream sheen.

Bohemia is dead, as Benny proudly declares to begin the mock eulogy of "La Vie Boheme," the 10-minute boho-manifesto of cultural rebellion. Gentrification has now mercilessly consumed downtown Manhattan and turned it into a trendy-boutique wonderland of gloriously overpriced clothing and seen-and-be-seen eateries: first stop, Jeffrey; continue down the block to Alexander McQueen; then take a right at the corner for a late lunch at Pastis. But the impenetrable charm of Rent lies in Larson’s optimism and belief in the American Dream, a valentine to capitalist disestablishment and art for art’s sake that is infectious, refreshing and wholly irresistible. His songs are full of the lushly romantic naïveté that encourage the bohemian ideal, and salvage Columbus’ clumsy set pieces and overtly literal directing. For every one of his inspired decisions (transferring Seasons of Love to the opening credits because of the cinematic absence of an intermission), there are a few more that enrage, confuse or disappoint, usually all at once: Why set it in 1989; what happened to "living in America at the end of the millennium"? What was up with those grotesque stagings of Tango: Maureen and Take Me or Leave Me? And why cut out Halloween?!

I credit Columbus though for almost completely assembling the original Broadway cast that premiered Rent almost 10 years ago in the Nederlander: Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs, with a surprisingly compelling Rosario Dawson filling in as Mimi and Tracie Thoms as Joanne. Inevitably it is Wilson Jermaine Heredia as show-stopping transvestite Angel that breaks your heart; Angel is the Eliza Doolittle of ’90s musical theater, a blissful combustion of passion and energy that helps Rent establish the very rudimentary cornerstone of a genre as fragile as the musical: unabashed and intoxicating sentimentalism.

My praise goes to the late Larson for making his audience believe, at least for a couple of hours, that optimism, friendship, and believing in your art is all you need in life. Rent celebrates life and death and everything in between, a passionate, endlessly joyous urban epic that fetes the very manifesto we as people want to live by – Truth! Beauty! Freedom! Love! – yet do not have the courage to do so. The mythology of Rent, cultivated since opening night off-Broadway in the New York Theatre Workshop, is so earnest and sanguine and unpretentious that it makes the most banal sentiment feel convincingly revolutionary.

In Dancer in the Dark, Björk’s Selma says that "in a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens." Selma loved life, was innocent and merry and anything but jaded; of course, she died at the very end. So does Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème, or Satine in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, or Angel in Larson’s Rent; they are the celebrated, beloved casualties of the musical’s fondness for conveniently packaged bohemianism. Despite the ham-handed ineptitude of its director, the film adaptation of Rent remains a showcase of the songs and lives worth celebrating.

Grade: B
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