I admit it — I'm a Rent-head.
I've been in love with the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical since seeing it on Broadway in 1996. Not only was Rent my introduction to the Great White Way, it was also a big reason for the first of many trips with my partner to New York City.
Rent — the stage version — is a feverish kaleidoscope of characters, colors and emotions. It's impossible to not emotionally connect with the songs, the spirit, the sense of hope that the late Jonathan Larson created.
It was thrilling to see such poignant and passionate explorations of gay, lesbian and even straight relationships.
Since then, I've seen Rent more times on Broadway, with My So-Called Life star Wilson Cruz and Queer Eye's Jai Rodriguez both taking flashy turns as drag queen Angel. Even ex-Spice Girl Melanie B. rocked it as drug-addicted stripper Mimi. I've also rallied with fellow Rent-heads and waited in lottery lines for hours during national tour dates — and won tickets several times.
Rent — the movie — then, is understandably a momentous personal experience. I cheered at the announcement of a big-screen version. I winced at the approval of big-budget director Chris Columbus, whose decidedly Hollywood credits include Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Bicentennial Man and two Harry Potter films. I grumbled at the replacement of the original Broadway Mimi, Daphne Rubin-Vega, with Sin City film star Rosario Dawson.
Thankfully — and amazingly — director Columbus has managed to retain all of Rent's most intimate and powerful moments. He carefully balances the story's raw, gritty urbanism with its scenes of sublime beauty and grace. Columbus understands the material, and it's impossible to not be moved by the strength of Larson's words and the sincerity of the performances.
The film also respects the story's pivotal same-sex relationships and fleshes them out nicely. Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) are pure, soulful romanticism; while Maureen's (Idina Menzel) and Joanne's (Tracie Thoms) thunder-and-roses personalities create sparks of sexual energy.
At the same time, Columbus big-screen vision artfully frees Rent from the constraints of the stage and allows the story to unfurl all over the slums and boroughs of New York City. Columbus takes risks with setting and song placement, and they work.
Rent is a complete and utter success, and it stands as one of the best and most electric movies of the year.
For the uninitiated (shame on you) Rent focuses on a year in the lives of a group of modern bohemians living in New York City's East Village. Roger (Adam Pascal) and Mark (Anthony Rapp) are roommates struggling with issues of poverty, success, loss and identity; Mimi (Dawson) is a troubled dancer looking for love and acceptance; Tom Collins finds a new lease on life in the form of the heavenly Angel; Joanne and Maureen clash over issues of fidelity and trust.
HIV/AIDS looms large over Rent's makeshift family. Roger, Mimi, Tom and Angel are all living with the disease, and it comes up regularly in scenes and in songs. Steve Chbosky's adapted screenplay deals with the disease gracefully and frankly — though most of it stems from Larson's original words. It's riveting to see the effect it has on so many denizens of the city.
Columbus made the wise, albeit risky, decision to move the pivotal anthem "Seasons of Love" from the middle of the musical to the beginning of the movie. It's a superb change, serving to both introduce the characters and set the film's tone. You'll struggle to stay in your seat once the chorus kicks in.