I’m wondering if it’s easier to suspend disbelief when watching something on stage versus the screen. When a story is set on stage, there are obvious limitations with the sets, locations, lighting, and physical space between both the characters and the audience to the characters. The pseudo-reality of the space is both so limited and defined that we know we have to go along with what is presented, even if it means characters breaking out into song.
However, when something is filmed, the possibilities are opened up exponentially, because they can use many more locations, they can get up close and personal with the characters, and, when it comes to mainstream productions, there’s a bigger budget that allows the filmmakers to create an much grittier, more detailed, more “real” reality than a stage production can.
That’s the dichotomy of the movie version of the hit musical, Rent. After its Broadway debut in 1996, it won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for Best Musical. I saw the national touring company when it came to Chicago, and although I found it to be flawed (some of those lyrics…good lord), it was still so much more loud and fun and crazy and raunchy and sexy and touching than any other musical I’d seen.
The story takes place in 1989 and follows two New York roommates, documentary filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) and rock singer Roger (Adam Pascal), as they try to avoid eviction by their landlord/former friend, Benny (Taye Diggs). Roger starts a thing with the stripper living below them, Mimi (Rosario Dawson). There’s also Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), the sweetest drag queen ever, who hooks up with Mark and Roger’s friend, Tom (Jesse L. Martin), an NYU professor.
And let’s not forget about the lesbians. Mark’s ex-girlfriend, performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), is now dating Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a lawyer.
Aside from Dawson and Thoms, all the original Broadway actors have returned, which is kind of weird considering most of these characters are supposed to be in their twenties and now the actors are well into their thirties. It’s one thing to see some recent film grad be all “fuck the system, man!” But when thirty-ish Mark says it, and then we see his awful documentaries that wish they were as good as a film student’s, it’s just kind of sad. Seriously, is he trying to make a poor man’s “Real World?” Because that’s what his movies look like.
Some of the other details are funny, too. Roger and Mark are so poor that their electricity is cut, so they use oh, say, about a hundred pillar candles to light their apartment. And how does Roger afford the gallons of mousse necessary for his awful, feathered, Kato Kaelin-meets-Jon Bon Jovi hair? Also, when we first meet Tom, he’s beaten up in an alley by some thugs. Angel, drumming on a plastic bucket for money on the street, hears him moaning and goes to help. Yeah, because in 1989 New York, I’m sure if someone heard strange noises in a dark alley they’d immediately go investigate and then help whatever stranger they found. The dude is just asking to be the victim in some horror movie.
Anyway, the whole thing is directed by Chris Columbus, the director of such films as Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter movies. He obviously doesn’t doesn’t know what to do with his actors when they start singing. They either just stand there and sing or move around so much it’s frenetic and irrelevant to the song. For example, since Maureen is supposed to be a charismatic, life-of-the-party type gal, Columbus has her climb on top of a table during her rousing duet with Joanne, “Take Me or Leave Me.” And then she just stands there. And sings. And it’s not that crazy or life-of-the-party-ish. It’s just a girl singing on a table.
Part of the problem may be the actors themselves. Maybe some of them thought they’d have to tone down their performances for the screen, but that was a mistake. This is supposed to be a rockin’ musical (as much as a musical can be rockin’), but apparently no one knows how to rock. While Menzel has moments of proving why she was originally cast as the ultimate party girl, sometimes her face just doesn’t match her own pre-recorded studio track. You can hear the raw power in her voice, but you don’t always see the corresponding tension or emotion on her face.
And Roger. Oy, don’t get me started on this guy. First of all, the character just sits around all day, wanting to write music but instead just stares out the window and sulks. That’s boring and not very dramatic for such a drama queen. Second, Pascal has all the charsima of a doorknob. I have no doubt that his voice can fill an auditorium, but with a camera up close he’s blank. There’s just nothing going on there. His hair is the most interesting thing about him and his hair is awful.
Luckily, there are some highlights. Dawson easily slips into the shoes of Daphne Rubin-Vega, Broadway’s original Mimi, who was pregnant during the filming. While her voice doesn’t match Rubin-Vega’s sultry, smoky sexiness (yay for alliteration!), she more than carries the screen alone as she slithers across her club’s stage during “Out Tonight.”
And can we have a round of applause for Martin and Heredia? Both are so awesome and so sweet, you can’t help but root for them. As they skip down the street singing “I’ll Cover You,” even the most conservative, homophobic asshole would get swept up in their giddy romance. Martin commits to his character with such force in each scene that it’s fascinating to watch him create an entire background and reality for Tom that’s not there in the script. Although I’m partially biased because he sings my favorite song in the show/movie (“Sante Fe,” a song both melancholy and hopeful that Martin really brings the house down with during the movie), I was just blown away by his physicality and emotional depth.
The movie also does a surprising job of knowing what songs to cut and what to keep. Although I would have loved to see a filmed version of “Contact,” a raunchy, kinky, funny song about all the couples hooking up, it really is an awkward transition into the sad, gospel-tinged reprise of “I’ll Cover You” as performed at a funeral. The movie creates a much more sensible passage of time.
To top it all off, there’s a hilarious, out-of-nowhere cameo by Sarah Silverman. How random and cool is that?
Overall, I’m ambivalent. Some things I liked. Some things I didn’t. Roger Ebert, giving it a “hesitant thumbs up,” predicted that the movie will be most satisfying to those who have already seen the stage version and can project all their positive associations onto the film. I’m not sure about that. I think it might be those very “Rentheads” who might be the most disappointed.
I have to admit, though, that for all the many flaws, Jonathan Larson did write some truly uplifting, moving songs (such as the opening of the movie, “Seasons of Love”). And even though the movie ends with yet another horrible documentary by Mark, as long as the cast is together, singing yet another anthemic “no day but today” chorus, I left the theater feeling pretty good. Should that affect how I felt about the whole movie? I’m not sure, so I think I ended up at the same place Ebert was at: a “hesitant” recommendation. ed/pub:ak