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Friday, December 02, 2005

Rent

I find it ironic that I'm choosing the movie version of Rent as my first review. I was a Theatre major in College during 1996 and every theatre nerd had the Soundtrack blaring in their cars, dorms, and Sony Walkman's, ( you know the things we had before ipods). I was so sick of the damn soundtrack, I refused to go see the play, turning down numerous offers to see it. I was happy in holding the distinction of being one of the few theatre major graduates in the world never to see a production of the play. In my mind, I felt the play was probably over-rated, and probably resembled Trey Parker and Matt Stone's parody in Team America.

But being the married bitch that I am now, when my pregnant wife wants to watch a movie, I gotta appease her, it's the least I could do for making her carry my unborn child in her belly.

The artistic genesis of the the musical production of Rent probably has as much drama in it, as the actual play itself. A modern day adaptation of the opera La Boheme, the play tells of artistic modern day Bohemian youth struggling through life, and love in New York, cast against the background of Drug use and the 90's AIDS crisis.

Adding extra emotional Gravitas to the production is the shadow of the untimely demise of the musical's playwright: Jonathan Larson. Who at the age of 35 died, unexpectedly, the night after the show' s final dress rehearsal, tragically never getting to experience the plays monumental success.

A Pulitzer Prize, some Tony's, as well as Obie awards, not to mention countless national, and international critical kudos later, Chris Columbus of Harry Potter and Home Alone fame, now brings us the movie version of the now legendary Broadway American musical.



Unfortunately, this movie version is not immune to the epidemic affecting most American movies today. The dreaded PG-13 rating. Gone is the operatic talk singing between musical numbers, instead we get audience friendly, awkward rhyming dialogue plucked from those same talk singing scenes. The movie also clocks in at a more family friendly two hours, and 15 minutes running time, cut down from the three hour play version. Not surprisingly, the edgier more provocative numbers, and phrases in the music is cut down, and sometimes completely cut out. All in an effort to reach the broadest possible audience, and achieve a PG-13 rating.

But what is most disappointing about the movie is the uncomplicated almost t.v. movie approach to the material.

Rather than contributing something artistically challenging, or inventive, Chris Columbus chooses to share the material with a standard music video approach. Perhaps feeling too much reverance for the source material. Basically putting the actors in story appropriate locales, and nailing the camera to the floor. In effect, he give us a castrated version of the musical in the process. This is disappointing because if ever a musical screamed for a strong, inventive artistic vision, or if a play was open to experimentation with the source material, it's RENT.


The original stage production is presented in a blank, multi-leveled black stage, the musical relies on sparse props and little or no sets, instead depending on the charisma of the actors, and the strength of the music and dramatic writing. Obviously, in film, you can't depend on such abstract settings, (unless it's the stylized movie Dogville, well actually, not even then).

The material demands a strong artistic vision when translating it to film, more importantly an interesting idea, to bring the material to life, which is why stylized directors like Spike Lee, and other independent film makers were at one time attached to the project.

Ironically, one of the strengths of the movie, is also one of it's shortcomings. Although, it's refreshing, and commendable that Chris Columbus invited the original cast back for the movie version. The truth is, it's almost been 10 years since the actors first performed the play, most of the cast is a little long in the tooth to be singing about "No Day But Today" , and play young 20 year olds who protest big business corporations, and rail against "the man".

In all honesty they were probably too old to play the parts back then, now a decade later, it's just plain ridiculous.

Rosario Dawson does, however, surprise as she more than holds her own vocally in the role of Mimi. One gets the sense that she loves singing the songs with the original cast. Almost like she sung along with them in the shower for years, and now she's finally getting the chance to share the stage.


The rest of the cast, however, have a been there done that kind of feeling to their perfomance. It's hard to imagine that they would feel anything but that, since they've probably performed the songs hundreds of times. Not helping things, is the elimination of the talk singing. You get the sense, even the actors feel that the material shoudn't be done this way. Especially after musical numbers, when they stand around awkwardly, seemingly waiting for the scene to fade to black, or when their converted dialogue starts to sound like bad rapping without a beat.

The undeniable strength of the movie, however, has to be in the music. Jonathan Larson's music doesn't suffer at all in the translation to film. Although I'm not a big musical theatre lover, I did find myself humming bars, and trying, I stress trying, to sing phrases in the privacy of my own space days later. The cast does a great job vocally, it's just a shame that the other artistic elements couldn't match the inspired music, and vocal interpretation of the material.




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