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Blu-ray Review: Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway

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When I first read last year that Rent was closing on Broadway, I had to read those words several times over to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. Over the last twelve years, the show has been a profound part of the lives of many people. This may seem strange, but, well, Rent is hardly an ordinary musical.

Rent, a modern update of Puccini's La Boheme, is the story of a group of friends living in the East Village of New York City in the mid-'90s. Over the course of two and a half hours, the audience gets a glimpse of this Bohemian lifestyle, an incredibly honest glimpse that is as far as can be from the Rodgers and Hammerstein type of Broadway storytelling. The cast struggles with the meanings of love, friendship, and life, as well as the pains of poverty, loss, addiction, and HIV/AIDS. It is an incredibly engaging story which takes the audience on a roller-coaster of emotions from the first number to the final curtain.

Because the show has affected so many over its twelve year run, those involved have graciously allowed the production of this filmed version to serve as a monument to the late Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer-winning masterpiece, as well as giving those who never got the opportunity to see the show on Broadway a chance to have that experience in some fashion. In the interest of self-disclosure, when I heard that this disc was going to be released, I was a bit skeptical. As is mentioned in the included special features, part of the magic of seeing a show on Broadway is being in that moment and atmosphere. I was unsure how that magic would translate from being in the theatre to watching the performance on a television screen.

I am happy to report, however, that my skepticism was unfounded. Though not as good as seeing Rent live, Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway is the next best thing (yes, even better than the 2005 theatrical version). The performance in this release is the result of a mix of footage from the last Broadway performance on September 7, 2008 and scenes filmed outside the environment of a ticketed performance. The editing is done really well and it is difficult to tell which scenes were filmed live or not, though there are some obvious points.

As with any Broadway show, the cast can make or break any given performance. This cast is one of the best that I have personally seen. Most are Rent veterans and are thus intimately familiar with the characters they play and the relationship dynamics. Standouts include Adam Kantor's portrayal of Mark Cohen and Justin Johnston's Angel (Johnston has continued this role in the Rent farewell tour currently touring the country).

The Blu-ray version contains a number of special features covering different aspects of the show's last week on Broadway. These include featurettes on the note-covered outside walls of the Nederlander Theatre, the Nederlander itself, casting the show over its twelve year run, choosing the final Broadway cast, members of the original cast who came back to see the last performance, and a featurette on the final $20 ticket lottery. Also included are two PSAs, one for the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, and the other for the National Marfan Foundation (Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder that is the likely cause of the aortic aneurysm that ended Larson's life).

The film is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1:78:1.  This film really shows off the capabilities of HD presentation.  The colors are rich and vibrant, the black levels are realistically deep, and there were no noticeable film artifacts.  Even small details, like the glitter shaken out of Mimi's hair during "Out Tonight," were picked up by the cameras used to capture the performance.  The video quality is truly amazing.

The audio is also impressive, though not as impressive as the video.  Recorded in Dolby TrueHD 5.1, the audio is able to pick up subtle nuances in the performance both on stage and in the audience.  The music and speech come through the center and front channels, with the audience filling the two rear speakers in an attempt to recreate the performance hall feel.  The disappointments come in the band not coming through as raw and powerful as they would in a live performance, most of the time sounding far off and muted.  Despite this, the audio is still good enough to not take too much away from the overall presentation. 

More than a Broadway show, Rent was an event, a happening that completely encapsulated the culture of Jonathan Larson and others struggling with life and loss in the Bohemian world of New York City. Though Rent has darkened its lights on Broadway, Larson's incredible genius has been preserved in this disc chronicling the last days of a show that has touched so many lives since its opening in 1996.

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