There are two types of people in the world – actually, there are many more than two, but for the sake of this argument, just accept there are two and stop being difficult – those who can accept that people might just break out in song to punctuate their emotional response to the world they live in, and those who can’t. Being firmly of the former variety, and in fact personally knowing people who do spontaneously lyricise their lives, it isn’t so hard to accept big screen musicals as a valid form of film. Certainly, there have been major successes in the past in this genre (like The Sound of Music, Grease, and recently, Chicago), even after the ‘golden age’ of the Hollywood musical, but society as a whole has moved on from acceptance of the form to scorn for its ‘fantastic’ approach.
In the 1990s, Rent the musical became one of the biggest sensations of the time. Telling its story of friendship and love amongst the artists, junkies, and HIV-infected population of an East Village slum area, this remake into a film has been criticised for being irrelevant to modern society, a criticism that is only partly fair. After all, the homosexual, drug-addicted, and financially strapped are often still marginalised in the 00s. The other problem with this approach is that it just plain misses the point. Rent uses the calamitous events within the space of one year in a group of societal outcasts as the tool to examine the strength of their relationships to one another. If we were only to use current society as the form to examine our own lives, the vast body of cinema that has gone before would be immediately irrelevant, and did I hear someone say something about the relevance of gay cowboys in Wyoming in the 50s?
The music of Rent is remembered for being upbeat and vibrant, and having witty, abrasive lyrics, and is no disappointment. From the anthemic ‘Seasons of Love’ which featured on the trailers, to ‘La Vie Boheme’, ‘I’ll Cover You’, ‘Life Support’ and ‘I Should Tell You’, they are uplifting, moving stories that succeed in adding depth to the traditional narrative, and in being easy to listen to and enjoy. It is no secret that the original Broadway recording of this soundtrack was a very popular album, and the reason is clear. If you find yourself tapping your foot or humming the tune as the action unfolds onscreen, one couldn’t blame you.
The performers are, almost without exception, brilliant. At the hands of many of the original stage cast – the only two who didn’t survive to the screen adaptation are Daphne Rubin-Vega and Fredi Walker, replaced by Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms respectively – the characters feel lived in in a way not often seen in a time of performers completing one ‘job’, then moving on to the next. There is no question there is advantage to having played the characters before, these singer/actors know them inside out, and they are pitch-perfect. Dawson is the only real disappointment, her voice at times wavering and weak, although her non-singing moments are some of the best she has committed to screen, and her rendition of ‘Out Tonight’ is stunning.
It is amazing to see Anthony Rapp carry a film like this, after knowing him only for his turn as the cult-leader Jacob in Road Trip. Jesse L. Martin is probably the most successful of the original stars (although Taye Diggs made a blip on the radar in the 90s); now well-known to television viewers as Detective Ed Green in ‘Law & Order’, this role is far removed from that tough-guy persona, and his AIDS-infected MIT dropout is unexpectedly funny and moving.
Rent is filled with wonderful music, fun moments of cameraderie and moving sequences of death and relationship difficulties. These people are all what mainstream society would call ‘broken’ in some way, but they make the best of their lot, which isn’t much. They fall in love, just like we do, and their desires and dreams affect them in just the way a ‘middle american’ longs for the object of his. Rent is a different screen offering in a time obsessed with comic book adaptations and remakes of 60s television shows, and if you let it, will move you.Rating: