US Theatrical Release: November 23, 2005 (Sony Pictures/ Revolution Studios)
US DVD Release: February 21, 2006
Running Time: 2:14:54 (29 chapter stops)
Rating: PG-13 (For Mature Thematic Material Involving Drugs and Sexuality and For Some Strong Language)
Video: 2.40:1 Anamorphic (Extra Features: 1.33:1 & 2.40:1 non-anamorphic)
Audio: English DD5.1, French DD5.1 (Extra Features: English DD2.0)
Subtitles: English, French (Extra Features: None)
TV-Generated Closed Captions: English (Extra Features: None)
Menus: Some brief transition and background animation.
Packaging: Standard 2-disc keepcase; insert has cover art for other Sony Pictures titles on one side and a Rent poster image on the other.
THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 3.5/5
After a decade on Broadway, one of the biggest hits of the modern era of musical theater has arrived on the silver screen. Rent has its share of detractors, due to its glorification of characters who are, shall we say, less-than-productive members of society, but perhaps they are taking it a little too seriously. The show’s intent is to remind us to enjoy life in the face of adversity. Although it's chock-full of very dark subject matter, Rent maintains a positive spirit that leaves viewers with a good feeling.
The story follows a year or so in the life of eight young adults on the Lower East Side of New York. It takes place between 1989 and 1991, around the time the City started its big cleanup (New York in the 21st Century is like Disneyland compared to the dirty and crime-ridden New York of the '80s). Most of the characters are living hand-to-mouth existences without steady work, several of them are HIV-positive, and the future is highly uncertain for nearly all of them. The plot is loosely based on La Bohème, and viewers familiar with Puccini's melancholy opera or the original novel will recognize a number of details lifted from or inspired by them. However, although Rent does involve tragic events, it takes a different tack than did its source material -- it is no tragedy.
The central characters are Mark (Anthony Rapp) and Roger (Adam Pascal), an aspiring filmmaker and a musician who share a loft in a ratty, condemned building. The same building houses Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a junkie and exotic dancer with, realism be damned (this is musical theater, after all), Hollywood looks. Their friends include Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a man bright enough to be at MIT but not dedicated enough to stay there, and Benny (Taye Diggs), who's married into money and now owns the property where Mark, Roger and Mimi reside.
Also in Mark and Roger's circle is Mark's slightly flaky and very flirtatious ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel), a popular local performance artist who is now seeing someone entirely different -- a buttoned-down, straight-laced lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms). No, Maureen isn't too discriminatory when it comes to her sexual preference, which does wonders for Mark's self-esteem.
The final member of our bohemian octet is Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a cross-dressing street musician who has a knack for odd jobs and, more importantly, for spreading joy. When Mark, Roger and Tom don't seem to have anything to be happy about on Christmas Eve, Angel comes into their lives with a wad of cash and a morbidly funny song-and-dance number about a canine assassination mission. His incredible energy finally gives the guys something to celebrate. The uplifting effect that Angel has on the lives of the other characters is the key to Rent's message.
Although Benny is given something of an antagonistic role as the oppressive landlord who's sold out his friends, the film wisely doesn't dwell on that subplot. We've heard that story before, and the villain of this tale is the tag-team of poverty and disease, not an evil person. It's not about conflicts between good and bad people; it's about complex people fighting to have loving relationships despite external and internal obstacles. Although none of Rent’s characters are without flaws, it manages to find some goodness in all of them.
The story of Rent is told almost entirely in song. The lyrics are of uneven quality, with many of them feeling more like dialogue simply set to music than like actual lyrics. The majority of the score is at least catchy, and a few of the tunes are quite memorable. The energetic staging of the songs definitely kicks them up a notch as well. Whether most of the tracks hold up on their own purely as music is open for debate, but they all work very well within the context of the on-screen action. Years ago, when I first heard the cast album, I found most of it to be pretty forgettable, but seeing the full performances is another experience entirely. The musical numbers in the film are alternately touching and great fun.
Without much straight dialogue between them, the characters take a while to develop and become likeable. The early scenes face a tough task in trying to grab the audience and make them care when we don't really know any of the singers yet. By the end of the film, however, the core characters are very well fleshed out, and it's easy to invest in their story. On repeat viewings, when the people on the screen are already familiar, some of the first-act numbers work a little better. The fact that some of these characters are junkies and not always working to better themselves may be too big of an obstacle for some viewers to get past, but that's one of the risks that the film isn't afraid to face. It's not trying to be everything to everyone.
Note that I have not seen the stage production, but my understanding is that the differences in the film are minor. Six of the eight leading performers come straight from the original Broadway cast in roles that they helped to develop. Film actress Rosario Dawson holds her own with the theatrical stars (who have a number of Tony and other stage awards between them), even if her vocals aren't quite up to the level of the best singers in the cast. (Interestingly, she actually lived as a squatter on the Lower East Side, and apparently, her mother still does.) Tracie Thoms fits right in with the show’s veterans. A couple of songs have been cut (although they were filmed and portions of them are included in the set as deleted scenes), and a small amount of spoken dialogue has been added to flesh things out. Judging from the pacing, which is generally very good, these changes haven't had much if any deleterious effect. The 135-minute running time feels just about right. If there is a point at which the film stumbles a bit, it's during the extended performance art sequence in which Maureen gets very, very wacky. Fortunately, this scene is peppered with enough humor to keep it from straying into nauseating pretension-land, but it does stretch on a bit longer than it probably should.
In the end, Rent is an uplifting story about finding strength in loving relationships in the face of life's harsh realities. The cast clearly has a lot of affection for the material and brings great energy to the screen. Director Chris Columbus has adapted a work known for feeding off of its live audience into a different but still entertaining experience. That it would work as a film was no certainty, but they've managed to pull it off nicely.
THE WAY I SEE IT: 3.5/5
The picture is generally pretty good. There’s a decent level of detail, although much of the film takes place at night, and some shots are overly dark and murky. The original film grain shows, but there are some compression artifacts visible as well. Colors tend to be on the rich side, saturated just beyond the level of pure realism. There’s just a hint of edge enhancement, but as has been the case for most recent Sony discs, it’s much less obtrusive than used to be the norm.
THE WAY I HEAR IT: 4/5
The audio is pretty solid, with clear vocals and a good 5.1-channel music mix. There’s a decent amount of surround channel activity, but it could have been a little stronger in order to better immerse the viewer in the show – after all, that is one of the selling points of the stage production. The dynamic range is very wide, which may lead to some volume adjustment during quiet sections of spoken dialogue unless the system is really cranked.
THE SWAG: 3.5/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)
Commentary with Director Chris Columbus and Selected Cast (Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp)
An informal, chatty track that covers a lot of the choices that were made in adapting the material. It occasionally devolves into giggles, but for the most part it’s very good.
Deleted Scenes And Musical Performances (11:58)
Five scenes, including an alternate ending, are included. They can be watched with or without commentary from Columbus and Anthony Rapp, which explains why some of them were cut. Some of the music leans to the whiny side, but it’s interesting to see. One number highlights Mark in a solo song, while some of the scenes flesh out the Benny character a bit.
Documentary: No Day But Today
A series of six excellent featurettes that can be played separately or in sequence via the trusty Play All button. They include a lot of home video footage and interviews with people who were involved with the show and with its creator, Jonathan Larson. They cover all sorts of interesting stuff over their nearly two-hour running time.
A brief overview of Jonathan Larson and the history of the show.
Days Of Inspiration (23:20)
The story of Jonathan Larson’s life and the development of his musical career.
Leap Of Faith (23:05)
The development of Rent from original concept through several iterations to its present form. This section explains how the AIDS crisis of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and other issues that directly impacted Larson’s life became key components of the work.
Another Day (14:30)
The members of the original Off-Broadway/ Broadway cast tell how they became involved in the project. Some interesting photos and footage of the stage production are included.
Without You (24:57)
This piece covers Jonathan Larson’s final days (he died suddenly the night before the show opened Off-Broadway – you can’t make this stuff up) and how the show and the people involved with it went on without him.
Over The Moon (24:30)
The development and production of the movie adaptation.
Two Public Service Announcements are included. They are actually pretty interesting. One talks about the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, which provides grants to struggling writers and musicians (5:52), with comments from famed composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked), and the other explains the National Marfan Foundation (1:02), which fights the often misdiagnosed medical condition that was probably responsible for Larson’s death at the all-too-young age of 35. In it, Anthony Rapp explains how to look for the warning signs of the syndrome.
- Benchwarmers (2:30) (DD5.1; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- Marie Antoinette (1:46) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- The DaVinci Code (2:00) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- The Legend Of Zorro (2:28) (DD2.0; 2.35:1 anamorphic)
- Freedomland (2:33) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- Fun With Dick & Jane (2005) (2:08) (DD5.1; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- Memoirs Of A Geisha (2:37) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
SUMMING IT ALL UP
The Way I Feel About It: 3.5/5
The Way I See It: 3.5/5
The Way I Hear It: 4/5
The Swag: 3.5/5
Translating a work of musical theater into a motion picture is an interesting and challenging project, just like adapting other types of works such as novels. Should the film remain completely faithful to its source, as with some of Sondheim’s filmed plays, or should it present the music and story in an entirely fresh style, as with something like Chicago? Rent finds a happy medium between the two, maintaining the intimacy of the stage production while opening things up with a variety of settings. It’s gotten a nice DVD treatment as well, with very good A/V and some extraordinarily in-depth extra features.
Despite the smashing success of Rent on the stage, bringing it to the cinema was a risky endeavor. With the possible exception of Chicago, audiences have not exactly been flocking to musical films in recent years. It’s certainly not going to appeal to anyone who doesn’t enjoy musicals, and elements of its subject matter may turn off some theatergoers. Unfortunately, Rent didn’t come close to making back its budget at the box office, but hopefully the DVD will find the wider audience it deserves. “Rent-Heads” as well as musical theater enthusiasts and others open to the concept should enjoy it.