The year is 1989, and a group of bohemian artists and addicts are living in New York’s East Village spending their days chasing dreams and confronting harsh realities. Roger (Adam Pascal) is a frustrated rock singer facing a bleak future with AIDS and a romantic interest in drug addict Mimi (Rosario Dawson). Mark (Anthony Rapp) is a struggling filmmaker, looking to get over his relationship with performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), who left him for a female lawyer (Tracie Thoms). And Tom (Jesse L. Martin) is caring for his lover Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), while watching him slowly die of AIDS. Confronted by one of their own (Taye Diggs), who wants to refurbish the area into a high-tech, upscale studio, the group spends the year suffering through life experiences, hoping to find their own place in the world, trying to sustain the warmth they find in each other’s company.
Filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee have set their sights on adapting Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Rent,” but could never get it off the ground. I considered it a huge surprise to see Chris Columbus, a man known for decidedly more fantastical fare (“Home Alone,” the first two “Harry Potter” films), slip quietly into the director’s chair and craft one of the best pictures of the year.
While there’s no doubt about Columbus’s talents, “Rent” isn’t material he normally gravitates to. Already a venerated Broadway musical, with fans all over the globe, “Rent” was thought over the years to be the ultimate unfilmable movie: the brass ring of pop musical adaptations. Other filmmakers would’ve tried to stamp their own scent all over the screen, yet Columbus knows exactly how to crack open this material: minimally. He strips down Larson’s work to the essentials, building it back up again in engaging ways that file down the sharp edges of the play’s notoriously dated setting, as well as inserting opportunities for the scenes to step out of their theatrical origins and embrace the New York East Village scenery, creating a much more multihued world than the stage allows.
In a more controversial choice, Columbus has brought in superstar producer Rob Cavallo to update the songs for the big screen. Those who have burned out their Broadway cast album over the years might be surprised to hear Cavallo up the tempo and depth of Larson’s wonderful rock songs, and remove a small portion of the music to help fit the framework of the movie. The changes work, especially ditching the lukewarm safe sex song, “Contact,” and the new arrangements make the music feel alive again. While the majority of the cast simply reprise their roles from Broadway, they are able to renew their ownership of these tunes through heartfelt renderings, especially the touching performances from Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, and Adam Pascal. Newcomer Rosario Dawson acquits herself memorably to Larson’s world in the important role of Mimi, lending the character the sexual heat and sweaty drug desperation that is lost on the stage, along with respectable pipes that aren’t drowned out by the theatrical pros.
“Rent” is an emotional experience, capturing the distress and gloom of the late-80s AIDS era. On stage, Larson’s book created the urgent feeling of friendship and the desolation of loss, but required the audience to meet the musical halfway. The reason the film version of “Rent” is so successful is found in the intimacy Columbus creates with the community of artists. Able to get his camera close to faces, the expressions and passion ring louder, enhancing the immediacy of the songs and the teamwork between the actors. Any distance the stage version of “Rent” might’ve created for some viewers is gone here, and the benefits are almost too numerous to list. Larson’s original tale of love and woe was a thrilling experience, but through Columbus’s eyes, “Rent” is beautiful, passionate, toe tapping, stirring, and reflective, following the lead set by the Broadway show and taking it to even greater heights.Rating: A