For the second time in only three months, Hollywood is giving us something we seldom see: a movie version of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. But unlike the gang at Miramax Films, who shoved Proof out the door in September as if they were ashamed of it, the people at Columbia Pictures are actually behaving as if they expect Rent to be a success. It’s a reasonable assumption; The show has a loyal following, and given the movie’s modest $40 million budget, it’s almost sure to make money.
Ever since its opening in 1996, Rent has been one of Broadway’s great tragic success stories. Seven years in development, a cult smash on the scale of Hair 30 years earlier, Rent is writer-composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson’s update of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, transplanting the artists and poets of Belle-Epoque Paris to New York’s East Village in the present day (that is, 1996; the movie pushes the action back to 1989). The success was the show’s: It became the must-see Broadway musical with a flurry of awards (four Tonys, six Drama Desk Awards and the Pulitzer) and productions all over the world. The tragedy was Larson’s: In the early hours of January 25, 1996, the day of the show’s first preview, he went home from the final dress rehearsal, put on some water for tea and dropped dead of an aortic aneurysm. He was only 35, and he would never know what a hit he had.
Writers could make up stuff like that, but they wouldn’t dare. Larson’s death served to emphasize one of Rent’s major themes, the importance of living every moment as if it were your last. One can imagine the feelings of the cast and audience at that first preview; it was, by all accounts, a heart-wrenching conjunction of life and art, and the show’s success skyrocketed from there.
It’s hard to imagine Rent’s devotees being disappointed by the movie. True, director Chris Columbus and writer Steve Chbosky have cut six of Larson’s 36 songs, but none that were likely to be anyone’s favorites. And the filmmakers move other numbers to different places in the program; for example, they wisely relocate the pull-out hit “Seasons of Love” from the opening of act two to the very top of the show, where it’s performed by the principal cast in an empty theater, a sort of overture before the film switches to its naturalistic setting.
I’ve been hard on Chris Columbus in the past, but let’s give credit where it’s due: He’s in his element here, and he delivers the goods. He’s never directed a movie musical before—but then, almost nobody has who’s still living. Whether he knew it or not, Columbus has an instinct for it; the opening sequence of his first film, Adventures in Babysitting, with Elisabeth Shue dancing around her bedroom to “Then He Kissed Me,” had more energy than the entire rest of his career. Until now. Under Columbus’ direction, Stephen Goldblatt’s swooping camera and editor Richard Pearson’s razor-sharp cuts are the visual equivalent of Larson’s soaring chords and driving beat. And Columbus has an emotional directness that can be shameless when the material is artificial or trite, as it was in Bicentennial Man and Stepmom. But here the material is real, and Columbus goes at it head-on, moving from dialogue to song and back again without awkwardness or apology.
Columbus’ simplest decision, yet in a way his most daring and inspired, was to cast most of the principal roles from the original Broadway cast: Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp all played the same roles when the show was new. They’re all nine years older now, and casting them in the film was ingenious—not despite that fact, but because of it. They’re still young, but they don’t look like kids anymore (as they must have in 1996), and it lends poignant urgency to the plight of the characters they play.
The newcomers in the cast are Tracie Thoms as the lesbian lawyer Joanne and Rosario Dawson as the exotic dancer Mimi. Thoms is very good, a sympathetic actress with a fine voice and a real knack for the tango, and Dawson is remarkable. Her feral sexuality makes her a natural for Mimi. She’s been kicking around movies since she was 15 and has never had such a showcase; Rent could be the breakout for her that’s been so long in coming.