Saturday, March 26, 2016
(November 2005, U.S.)
"You're watching RENT?"
That's the question my wife asked me three nights ago when I was watching the Chris Columbus film version of the Tony award-winning Broadway musical of the 1990s, which is actually based on Giacomo Puccini's opera La bohème. You see, she knows my general distaste for musicals and was surprised to find me investing my valuable time in one while she went about the business of microwaving her evening meal. Yes, even I had to ask myself why I was watching RENT. To effectively answer that, let's go back about eighteen years...
I saw RENT on stage in May 1998 for my thirty-first birthday when I was living in Manhattan. At this point, I couldn't even tell you if the original cast members were still part of the production, but I do remember walking away having generally enjoyed it. I've always been a lot more partial to Broadway musicals with a great degree of originality as opposed to the vast multitude of them that have been based on movies (those are a complete waste of my time and money!). So now cut to seven years later - it's the holiday season of 2005, my wife is (very) pregnant with our son and she's dragging me to the new movie version of RENT. Normally, I would have said something like, "Aw, honey, can't you go with your cousin Lisa instead? She's a RENT junkie!". But hey, like I said, she was pregnant and I was trying to nice! Nearly two and a half hours later, the movie ends and I basically file it under that part of my brain that dismisses most musicals as a genre I simply cannot relate to (still, I bought my wife the DVD when it was released months later). Now jump ahead twelve years later and I can clearly see that RENT is the next DVD in the family collection of discs immediately following THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. So what to do? Skip over it and watch RESERVOIR DOGS or perhaps take a chance and see if RENT has anything to offer my brain and my memories having put a distance of so many years since I last viewed it. Well, guess what...I'm here now getting into this, so something must have been happening while my wife was asking me, "You're watching RENT?"
The film tells the story of the lives of several Manhattan's East Village "Bohemians" and their ongoing struggles with paying their back rent, drugs, sexuality and life under the shadow of AIDS. Their story takes place over the course of a single year, from Christmas Eve 1989 to Christmas Eve 1990. We have aspiring and struggling Jewish filmmaker Mark Cohen (played by original cast member Anthony Rapp), his roommate Roger Davis (played by original cast member Adam Pascal) who is a struggling rock musician and HIV positive from a former drug addict partner who subsequently died of AIDS, their friend Tom Collins (yeah...like the drink and played by original cast member Jesse Martin) who is a gay college professor also struggling with AIDS...
(hey, have you noticed I'm using the word struggling a lot here? I guess that's what "Bohemians" in the '90s do - they struggle!)
...Mimi Marquez (played by Rosario Dawson, not original) who is David's love interest and struggling (there I go again!) with her heroin addiction, Angel (played by original cast member Wilson Heredia) who is a street musician and drag queen and...yeah, you guessed it...struggling with AIDS, Benjamin Coffin III (played by Taye Diggs, also original) who used to be Mark and David's roommate and is now considered the "enemy working for the Man" as he is now the landlord of the building they live in and is trying to enforce the rent that is long past due. We have Maureen Johnson (played by Idina Menzel, also original, and also many years before she would make FROZEN's "Let It Go" an apocalyptic nightmare to listen to!), a bisexual performance artist and Mark's ex-girlfriend, and finally, Joanne Jefferson (played by Tracie Thoms, also not an original cast member) who is a lesbian Harvard-graduate lawyer and Maureen's love interest.
Let me take a breath here because I feel like I just announced the entire lineup of an Agatha Christie novel! And yet, in describing each of the film's character, it sort of alleviates my having to go too much deeper into the story's plotline. Knowing who these men and women are, what they do to survive everyday and how they deal with their relationships, illnesses and the prospects of death are enough to know and understand the sort of youth-oriented world of the 1990s we're dealing with. For me, the true value of watching RENT on film is it's effectiveness in how it's been filmed and photographed, particularly some scenes (only some, unfortunately) filmed on location in New York City. Interestingly, however, the movie opens with the primary cast members standing in a row on a theater stage singing the opening song "Seasons of Love". Bearing in mind that this is no longer a Broadway musical, this non-conventional opening somehow works for me because it abstractly sets the tone of introduction to a group of people we're going to devote the next couple of hours of our lives to and perhaps, if it works, come to really care about them. They'll sing and they'll dance their way through all of their struggles (again!), even to the point of dying, which by the way, no film tale of "Bohemia" and AIDS could possibly be without. While it's (admittedly) difficult for a man like myself to identify with a character like that of the drag queen Angel, he is, I must confess, a character considerably more beloved than the others in that regardless of his being quite different from the rest of his friends, is the one character who seems the most sure of himself through his kindness to others and his neverending zest for life, right up until the time he's dying of AIDS in a hospital bed with his loyal friends around him. And it's the loyalty of these people that I find particularly touching, especially in a world where loyalty appears to be a dying human trait.
Now taking into account (once again) that I generally don't like musicals (quite frankly, the singing never seems to end in this film as there are very short intervals of actual acting in between musical numbers), I'm really forced to ask myself what it is about RENT that appeals to me on film. The answer, I suppose, is its raw edginess and intensity in telling a story of city kids who must live and survive in a harsh world in which they never know what's going to happen next. As previously mentioned, the film takes place over the course of only a year, but there is much significance that happens in that year. The musical performances, for what they're worth to someone like me, are hard, fast and full of fury to effectively represent the love, anger and even betrayal that these young men and women feel every day of their lives. And, speaking for myself on a somewhat personal and selfish (and perhaps even cheap level), watching Idina Menzel in her sexy apparel (including a black cat suit!) totally does it for me because the girl is HOT!!! We even get to see her slowly pull down her pants during the song "La Vie Bohème" as she basically tells the world behind her to kiss her ass!
(though I would suggest that her ass could use a nice tan!)
And so, to my darling wife Beth, I hope I've answered the nagging question of why I was watching RENT. And thanks to the movie and your persistent singing, I've have the lyrics of "Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes" in my head all week! Thank you SO much for that!
Favorite line or dialogue (all sung):
Joanne: "This is weird."
Mark: "It's weird."
Joanne: "Very weird."
Mark: "Fucking weird."
Joanne: "I'm so mad that I don't know what to do. Fighting with microphones, freezing down to my bones, and to top it all off, I'm with you!"
Mark: "Feel like going insane? Got a fire in your brain, and you're thinking of drinking gasoline?"
Joanne: "As a matter of fact..."
Mark: "Honey, I know this act: It's called the Tango: Maureen!"
(yeah, I knew someone like Maureen a long time ago. I hated that dance!)