Rent (Movie)

Rent came out while I was in theatre school and many of the songs are charged with my emotions and dreams from back then. Brigitte and I usually would sing the score as we drove from Dayton to Louisville to visit home. It was just long enough for us to cover both CDs plus have time for a stuff at Wendy’s.

I never really thought Rent deserved the Pulitzer Prize – I thought if Jonathan Larson’s death had not elevated the show to mythic status it would not have become such a massive success. Yes, this was a show that managed to lure young audiences back to the Great White Way, but I don’t think it is as fantastic as believed.

Half of the music of Rent is great, half is boring and pedestrian.  I remember when I saw the show the first time (on a tour) I was struck by how loose the narrative was and some sequences were just people singing a fugue while standing still in soft light. Tableaus should punctuate a story, not stall it.

I’ve always had a problem with the fake class struggle that Rent purports to portray.  I just have no sympathy with artists who don’t no shit about business and marketing. I think to not know how to run the business of your art (and the art of your business) is to be irresponsible to your creative impulse. To just laugh and say ‘If I build it, they will come.’ is completely incompetent if you want your artistic visions to reach across the eons. I don’t think it is cool to be a starving artist more than it is cool to be dying of advanced HIV or heroin addiction. Ebert hit the nail on the head:

There is not a person reading this review who couldn’t make a better film than Mark, who doesn’t even know the handle of his hand-cranked 8-mm camera should not be revolving as he films, and whose footage looks like jerky home movies. To be given $3,000 to supply his sub-Warhol indulgences to TV is about as likely as Ozzy Osbourne getting his own reality show, ho, ho.

Rent is in love with it’s own grit and conveniently washes everybody in  soft focus when the going gets tough. For being homeless, everyone is well-bathed and their clothes are clean and untarnished… and it isn’t like this wasn’t calculated – the ‘real’ homeless people look like total hell – even ‘old’ – and they provide one of the few honest moments with regards to this class struggle: ‘Hey artist,  you got a dollar? I thought not.’

Still, Rent‘s strengths lies in some fantastic songs and moments. Take Me For What I Am, one of the best female duets ever, Without You that goes from interminable on CD to moving in person/on-screen… the ‘trusting desire, starting to learn’ segment at the end of Act I.

Luckily the film cuts out a ton of unnecessary recitative. Larson seemed enamoured with doing one of those Miss Saigon-inspired ‘sung-through’ musicals where god forbid someone actually utter a line of dialouge. Here in the movie, they say the lyrics – they just don’t sing them. And everything still gets communicated (and moves a long a lot faster).

‘What  You Own’ seemed clumsy when this song always makes me get all moved with the duet of two best friends figuring out how to survive at the turning points of their lives.

‘La Vie Boheme’ retains most of the verve from when we all first saw it on the Tony Awards way back when and thought to ourselves, ‘Did they just say faggots, lezzies, dykes on network TV?’

Jessie Martin steals the show with amazing charisma and a fantastic voice that hasn’t lost any power since his years on Law and Order. Anthony Rapp has a lot of depth to his performance and manages to look as young as the part requires.

I think what I always loved about Rent was the pan-sexual, pan-ethnic quality of it’s casting. When Angel and Tom Collins hook up there isn’t any ‘but dude, he’s a dude’ moment. It’s free love filtered through GenX Reaganomics and pre-9/11 optimism. Same-sex couples and people of color really can be safe and completely harmless (when they aren’t burning down their own tenements). And this was such a refreshing vision to see onstage: young people of all colors singing their hearts out night after night.

Yes, it is heavy handed. Yes, the ending is a total cheat deus ex machina. Yes, Angel is a ‘dying super-queen as example to us all.’ Yes, AIDS doesn’t manage to hurt your singing voice. Yes, homeless squatters taking over abandoned building is actually trespassing as well as throwing flaming garbage onto the streets. Yes, Maureen’s performance art piece still makes no sense and seems to halt the entire first act. Yes, In Her Eyes is a terrible song not worthy of the supposed 1-year gestation that Roger spent. Yes, Mark evidently makes shitty films and doesn’t connect his lack of talent (while overstock of passion) with his complete financial failure (and/or lack of an actual job).

But yes, they sing their hearts out and that might be enough to transport your for a few hours.

I cried during different parts. 1) Because I grew up with these songs and they remind me of my earlier creative self 2) Because some of them are powerful and remain artifacts of their setting (and performance) 3) Because I’m an F and my logical side can be overwhelmed easily (witness my complete terror seeing Signs only to re-examine the movie and think ‘meh’). The women’s chorus of ‘I die without you.’ in the closing singing over the men’s ‘No day but today’ retains soaring hope that moves me.

I can’t wait to see it with Brigitte though. I know if I cried a bit, she will dehydrate herself.

Now Sweeney Todd. We could talk about that show all day.







4 responses to “Rent (Movie)”

  1. Alison Avatar

    You are right. I have to admit it. It’s a silly and naive show. And some of the music does downright suck. But I loved it anyway, because I fell in love with the play for the first time when I was so young and it’s just so damned sentimental for me. It has nothing to do with quality.

  2. Brigitte Avatar

    I have always preferred our two person, gender-blind casting, road trip version of Rent over the stage production. Granted, the choreography wasn’t as extensive, but you can always fast forward to the good songs.
    Name the date of our viewing. I’ll probably cry anyway ’cause I’m a softy.

  3. Robert Avatar

    I hated Rent. I lived in Manhattan during the period in which the play is set. Let me tell you, heroin addicts and people dying of AIDS don’t have so much fun while they’re squatting. To me it looked like a spoiled bunch of ivy-league kids trying to act “bohemian”. And the “rent-heads” need to get a life.

  4. Charles Avatar

    “There is not a person reading this review who couldn’t make a better film than Mark, who doesn’t even know the handle of his hand-cranked 8-mm camera should not be revolving as he films, and whose footage looks like jerky home movies.”

    Ebert actually wrote that? He should know better. Mark used a 16mm reflex Bolex, not an 8mm camera, and yes the handle revolves as he films (although you can flip it the other way to disengage it.) Ebert writes drivel 70% of the time.

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