“Maybe it’s not the moon at all/I hear Spike Lee’s shootin’ down the street” goes one of the lyrics in Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent, and for awhile, Spike Lee almost was shootin’ down the street. When it was announced that Lee was slated to direct the rock musical, a boho version of Puccini’s La Boheme with AIDS replacing consumption as the deadly pall, many people’s hearts leaped, as it would have finally given the maverick director a chance to unleash the musical prowess already present in many of his films. (After all, Lee has been known to cite The Wizard of Oz as his all-time favorite picture.) But make no mistake, good or bad, it would have been nothing less than a Spike Lee joint. After testing with several actors and performers (Justin Timberlake was famously among them), Lee stepped aside, and Rent was on the market again.
Enter Chris Columbus, the go-to guy for sturdy, workmanlike adaptations where artistic merit or daring is strictly coincidental. After making two mediocre Harry Potter pictures, Columbus stepped in to helm this project, and many of those hearts mentioned above began to deflate. Would Columbus, one of the most sentimental filmmakers alive turn an already sentimental and beloved modern musical into mush? Not quite. He’s shrewdly made a picture that Rent-heads everywhere will probably embrace with open arms even if cinephiles shrug and fold their arms. Retaining all but two of its original principal stage cast members, Columbus mainly sticks to protocol, which is a relief considering how many horrific directions the project could have gone in.
In telling its NYC-based tale of love and regret in an AIDS-torn East Village, Rent was the kind of musical that made a huge impression simply because there hadn’t been a full-scale rock opus of its type since Hair, which similarly leaned on national woes (the Vietnam War, particularly) to make for a discussion piece. And then there was the utterly tragic death of its composer, Jonathan Larson, a mere four months before the show was to make its Broadway bow after a blazing run downtown made it the “it” show of the moment. Everybody saw it, even if it’s now the type of show people can barely admit to having ponied up for. The stage version was chaotic, obscenely loud, and the lyrics were occasionally clunky. And it was also galvanizing, a show that packed emotional jolts around every corner, in that great, unapologetic way that marked truly great stage musicals of yesteryear. And its youthful, electric cast soared, putting some much-needed rejuvenation back into the soggy, waxwork residue left by Lord Webber and company.
Happily, those same actors, despite being 10 years older, are the best thing about the screen version. (Its new imports, Tracie Thoms and the fetching Rosario Dawson, as leading lady Mimi, neatly fit right into the ensemble.) Even when the staging is awry (and it often is), they all employ their chops to vibrant effect, especially Adam Pascal, who seems even more lived-in now as the tuner’s rehabbed, HIV-afflicted leading man Roger. Wisely underplaying most scenes instead of going for jugular-strangulation pathos, Pascal steps up nicely, which is the ultimate irony, since he may have less screen history than anyone else in the cast. Reprising their roles as Roger’s filmmaker roomie Mark and his now-lesbo ex Maureen, Anthony Rapp and Idina Menzel are still winning, and Jesse L. Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia (who won a Tony for his perf on stage) remain affecting as unlikely couple Collins and drag-diva-with-a-heart-of-gold Angel, even getting over the clichéd nature of the latter’s character. Even comic Sarah Silverman, who has been dreadful in practically every movie she’s been in to date, has a sly cameo as a soul-sucking exec at a TV show that Rapp’s character sells out to.
So, it’s really too bad that their director leads them astray. Working with cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, virtually no musical number transpires without an array of swirling indifference, undermining a lot of the drama. Columbus clearly has no way of making sense of the musical form, so he basically coasts on empty style, which might have worked for some projects, but here it renders the work too slick and more often becomes what Rent‘s detractors think it is. He does make a few wise choices, namely not sidestepping the sexuality of its characters (same-sex kisses are, amazingly, not averted) and not entering territory he’s not remotely suited for (the AIDS angle is handled with relative restraint). But one can only imagine what Lee might have made of it, a director who would have truly uncovered the play’s grit and grime. On film, the struggles of its characters play out in lively but in no way harrowing form, therefore, the material’s power is diminished. Also, unlike the show, you get very little sense of these characters suffering from anything. When Dawson’s Mimi does a boffo strip-club dance that looks more suited for the johns who watched Jennifer Connelly do “ass to ass” in Requiem for a Dream, she seems too healthy and spry for a frail junkie with HIV. Most of us would wish we had the same energy with the common cold.
But Larson’s music often saves the movie. One would have to be made of stone not to respond to at least something in this vivid score, and it sounds marvelous. The lyrics (which many thought seemed garbled in the busy sound design of the Nederlander Theatre) are more audible here, which is also unfortunate at times, because it reveals their wobbly nature (Taye Diggs’s big number “You’ll See,” moved way up on the set list here, actually uses the phrase “pooh-pooh it”). But the biggies (“Seasons of Love,” “La Vie Boheme,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” the undervalued “Another Day”) still resonate. So even if, as one lyric goes, “the filmmaker cannot see,” Rent is far from hopeless. We always have Joel Schumacher adapting another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical for that.