What sin have we committed, O gods of The Movies?
I understand… American filmgoers have been naughty lately. We’ve put the industry in a slump by consorting with TV and DVD and TV-as-collected-on-DVD. We’ve been spending scads and scads of cash on “Chicken Little.” I get it, we’ve been bad.
But please, please tell me what we did… what we possibly could have done… that you would deem it necessary to inflict “Rent” upon us.
Here is the kind of movie that, when it introduces a waifish Latino streetwise-saviour by the name of Angel, you just know that he’s a life-affirming, superhumanly-flamboyant jack-of-all-trades drag queen AND the film’s idealized moral center before such is ever revealed.
Yes, this is going to be a negative review. A really negative review. Some of you who deduced that before I told you and are among the “Rent” faithful are already livid at me. Furious, in fact. So angry that you won’t even finish the review, preferring to curse my name to the heavens and blow off some steam reading “Gilmore Girls” fan-fiction. My loss, I guess.
I’ll confess right here up front that I’ve never seen “Rent” performed live, and thus cannot comment as to whether or not it, like most musicals, works better in person where the experience of being sung-to can improve the perception of just about any song. I WAS readily familiar with it’s songs, characters, premise and mythology, owing to the fact that I was an Art major in College and listening to the infrequently-hummable “Rent” soundtrack accompanied vegan cuisine, “Dogme95” and quasi-Marxist political philosophy on the checklist of things one was expected to endure if one hoped to keep company with the alluring young ladies of the Theater department.
It’s been my perception, unchanged since I first became aware of this play, that while it indeed offers a collection of rousing musical moments and a finely-chosen cast hither and dither, the “Rent” phenomenon has more to do with WHAT the play is than HOW it is. WHAT it is is a musical shriek of “resist the man!” defiance on behalf of New York City’s AIDS-decimated gay/straight/bi/trans urban wannabe-bohemians circa-1989, framed as a loose reworking of Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Of equal importance is that the work’s author, one Johnathan Larson, died suddenly at 36 before it ever opened, a tragic fate that none the less propelled both his name and his play instantly onto the Bruce Lee/Elvis/Hendrix/Marilyn immortality superhighway.
In other words, I understand why people want to love “Rent.” What I don’t understand, having now experienced it’s story, characters and music in the form of a film, is why they actually do once they’ve seen it.
The story follows a group of best-friends, united as dwellers of a decaying artist-tennament on the lower East Side. A burnout rocker and an aspiring filmmaker live upstairs, below them lives a vivacious stripper, below her lives a frustrated professor and the above-mentioned drag queen.
The filmmaker is pining for his ex girlfriend, a performance artist who left him for a lesbian and is mounting a protest show against developers who want to turn the local homeless encampment into a cyber studio. The rocker is being pursued by the stripper, but his demons keep pushing her away. Both rocker and filmmaker are approached by an ex-buddy, (Taye Diggs) who’s gone over to the dark side by marrying into the rich family behind the cyber studio, with an ultimatum: Help shut down the protest and rent will be a non-issue.
Oh, and most of them either have AIDS, are in love with someone who has AIDS or both; and the same is true for even more of the peripheral cast. You will not be surprised that ONE of them dies of it in order to usher in the 3rd act, nor will you be surprised which one though I won’t reveal it here.
I hope that you believe, because it’s the honest truth, that I went in wanting to like this movie. I wanted, very, much, to understand the tremendous love and devotion that fans have to this material. The wet-eyed exhilaration I see from “Rent” acolytes when the trailer for this would kick up is the kind of feeling I got watching “LOTR” unfold the first time, or “Spider-Man” even, and I could always use more sources for that feeling. I wanted to walk out of this humming the songs. I didn’t. I’m really sorry, but I didn’t.
The BIG chunk of my problem is in the characters. I’m very sad that Larson died so young, and it’s nice that his play was a posthumous hit… but these people are just too thinkly sketched as characters and there’s no way I can deny it. I can’t bring myself to care about them because there’s no way to know them, and the film makes no real effort toward helping me know them. It feels as if they are just “types,” designed to draw instant likability from people pre-inclined to like them anyway. And speaking only for myself, I’m not going to fall in love with a character on the basis of his being an acrobatic Latino transvestite or an angsty guitar-strumming songwriter, there needs to be some element either in the screenplay or in the performance to MAKE them likable, and it’s not here. Strike one.
The story and setting become problematic as well. In it’s time (1996) “Rent” had the benefit of being of-it’s-moment. The tropes and the iconography… smock-clad art-chicks on the streets of NYC, AIDS-ravaged urban poor, the looming spectre of urban renewal, the cultural vogue of omnisexual/omniracial makeshift families, the halcyon pre-9/11 sense of there being no bigger worldwide crisis than Presidential blowjobs… gave it a sense of immediacy and connection especially to the off-broadway New York audiences it premiered to. It’s cast (90% recreated here) was young and vibrant. Now it merely reads as a dated relic of the past, the same as any modern performance of “Hair” is going to. There’s no real deeper place it ever goes beyond “this is just so NOW!,” and thats a problem now that “NOW!” has aged into “then.” The cast, too, while earnest and sincere, look more than a little phony playing a crew of supposed 20-somethings when they have the faces, voices and physiques of people pushing their mid-30s. Strike-two.
And then there’s the songs. Look, folks… it’s not that it’s BAD music. It’s that… look, I just don’t think it works. Something like 95% of this show is all in song, forming everything from inner-monologues to group conversations to dance numbers… and it’s all just so thematically indistinguishable. All of these different people are singing; gay people, straights, lesbians, trannies, landlords, rockers, blacks, whites; but with rare exception (Diggs throws himself into his truncated role as “the baddie”) they don’t ever feel like their singing “their” songs. They sound instead as though merely reading songs all written in the same exacty voice… and it’s the voice of a sullen, petulant teenaged girl furiously scrawling poetic love letters to an imagined ideal of NYC faux-hemian bliss into her journal, every “i” dotted with a heart and every margin stuffed with doodled rainbows. But, then… maybe thats the point? Foul ball.
There’s one big scene that illustrates what’s not working here, the dramatization of Maureen the street-performer’s epic one-woman multimedia show staged in protest of urban renewal. Her act is lame, her voice is shrill, her symbolism is nonsensical, it involves assuming the persona of a talking cow and leading the audience in a protest of mooing… it’s disasterously silly, pretentious and self-indulgent, and that seems to be the hook of the scene; a comedic deflation of the mythically-magnetic person Maureen has been built up as by her male and female admirers previously in the film. Problem is, it’s not that much MORE silly, pretentious and self-indulgent than every other performance in the movie! Heck, until she bends over backwards to mime suckling at the teat of a magical moo-cow I didn’t understand that the movie was KIDDING. The movie doesn’t seem to understand that it IS the exact sort of masturbatory art student self-promotion it here tries to mock. Strike-three.
I really do feel badly that the alleged magic of “Rent” didn’t work on me. I wanted to find myself among the converted, guys, I really truly did. But I didn’t, and so must honestly say to you here that watching “Rent” must be placed on the list of bewildering and disheartening experiences I’ve had at the movies this year.
FINAL RATING: 3/10
What sin have we committed, O gods of The Movies?