Rent review by Mike Long

There's a cardinal rule of film criticism that many reviewers often forget: You can only review the movie as it is. This may sound like an odd statement, but it's something that happens daily. It is fair to discuss what a movie is or isn't, or what it could have been, but the bottom-line is that one must critique the film as is. This is typically done by comparing the movie to others that one has seen. But, it's not fair to compare a finished film to another medium all together. And based on many of the reviews that I've read for Rent, this is a lesson that critics need to learn.

Rent takes place in 1989 & 1990 and focuses on a group of people who live in the East Village neighborhood of New York City. Roger (Adam Pascal) is a failed musician who lives with Mark (Anthony Rapp), an aspiring filmmaker. They live in a dingy apartment which is now controlled by their former roommate, Benny (Taye Diggs) (who married into money). Benny has attempted to evict Roger and Mark so that he can level the building in order to build a "cyber city". But, Mark and Roger refuse to vacate the premises. This sentiment is echoed by Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), an old friend of Roger and Mark's who has returned to New York after teaching at MIT. Once in town, Tom meets Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a transvestite who aids Tom when he's mugged. Meanwhile, Roger finds himself instantly attracted to his neighbor, Mimi (Rosario Dawson), but due to a doomed relationship from the past, Roger is hesitant to reach out. Speaking of doomed relationships, Mark was recently dumped by Marueen (Idina Menzel) for another woman, Joanne (Tracie Thoms). To add insult to injury, Maureen asks Mark for technical assistance for a performance that she's staging to protest the destruction of the neighborhood. As we learn more about these characters and their lives, we come to know that four of them have AIDS. We also see them face the struggles of relationships, poverty, and drug addiction.

Rent is based upon the long-running Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway musical written by Jonathan Larson. As with the play, the film is a musical, with much of the story being told through song. (I learned from the extras on the DVD that the play is essentially devoid of dialogue and that everything is done through song.) I'm normally not a fan of musicals, as I find them to be far too cheery and upbeat. The idea that people would spontaneously burst into song is hard enough to swallow, but when they are dancing and happy as well, it can make the whole affair far too corny. While the impromptu singing certainly occurs in Rent, the story is very dramatic and the songs typically accentuate a powerful feeling or situation. The songs themselves in Rent are an improvement over the typical musical. Far from the billowing, orchestral products of the Rogers & Hammerstein era, the songs here are more akin to pop and rock music and they are very accessible.

The story and characters in Rent also aren't the usual stuff of musicals. Sure, movies like West Side Story and Hair featured characters who were outside the mainstream for their time, but Rent brings us a group of gritty urban dwellers, some of whom are just barely hanging on to their existence. The story be questioned for the fact that the characters fall neatly into stereotypical niches, but this is necessary for the story to movie along through the music. We learn enough about everyone to follow their tale. To be honest, I would have liked to have known more about all of the characters, but the film's purpose is to focus on a specific time and place and not their pasts. Having now seen the film, it's easy to see why the play caused such a stir. A story dealing with AIDS, homosexuality, interracial relationships, and poverty isn't for everyone, but the fact of the matter is that Larson was reflecting what he saw in his neighborhood everyday. It's the juxtaposition dramatic realistic issues with the joyous music which makes Rent unique.

In case you can't tell from my proceeding statements, I was impressed with Rent. As someone who hasn't seen the play and honestly knew little about it, I found myself taken with the movie, especially the music. As noted above, I think that the story could have delved deeper into the characters, but that wasn't its mission. This brings me back to my opening statement. When Rent was released in theaters, I read reviews from several critics who faulted the film for not being as good as the stage production. Some questioned the timing of the film and asked if it came too late. To this I say: review the movie! Is it better or worse than the play? I don't know, as I haven't seen it. But, I do know that I liked the movie and that's all that matters here. To those critics, I say this: Not all of us live in New York where we have access to the latest shows. For many American, this film will be the only way to ever experience Rent. Based on what I know about the play, I don't think that I would have enjoyed it at all, but the movie was certainly worth seeing. I say ignore those critics who are telling their readers to avoid this film. If Rent sounds interesting to you, check it out. If you've never seen the play, it will be totally new to you (as it was for me), and if you're familiar with the play, the movie offers some new takes on the story. Either way, those who like musicals will get something from Rent.

Rent bursts onto DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The movie is coming to DVD into two separate releases, one widescreen, the other full-frame. For the purposes of this review, only the full screen (?!) version was viewed. The full-frame version is cropped to 1.33:1, while the widescreen version is 2.40:1. The image is sharp and clear, as the movie presents a nice selection of colors played out against very dark and drab backgrounds. The film features some very dark scenes, but the action is always visible on this transfer. The full-frame version has done a nice job of maintaining the characters and action in-frame (there's no obvious pan-and-scan effect), but the framing feels very claustrophobic and it seems as if the characters have no room to move. The picture shows no overt grain and artifacting effects are kept to a minimum. The DVD features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. Let's cut to the chase here, the music sounds very good on this track. The film features a mixture of ballads and rock songs and they all sound very good. The stereo and surround sound effects add a great deal to the music, although I would have preferred more bass to the production. The dialogue sounds fine and the street sounds add ambience to the surround presentation.

The 2-disc DVD release of Rent contains what at first glance will appear to be a very small amount of extras, but what is here is incredibly thorough. Disc 1 features an audio commentary with director Chris Columbus and stars Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal. This is a very loose and casual commentary which contains some very funny moments. The speakers do a great job of describing the on-screen action, discussing in which location a particular scene is taking place and reminiscing about the logistics of shooting a musical. They also touch on elements of the film which are different from the play and talk about how these changes effected the film.

Disc 2 features a 112-minute documentary entitled "No Day But Today". This feature-length extra gives a very detailed look at the life of Jonathan Larson and his struggle to write "Rent" and have it produced. Through interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, we learn Larson's history and how he devoted his life to his work. The bulk of the doc spotlights Larson and the play, with only 24 minutes being devoted to the making of the film. "No Day But Today" is a great example of what a DVD extra should be like, as it tells us the story behind the movie in a detailed fashion which doesn't get bogged down in hype and glitz. Disc 2 also features 5 "Deleted Scene" which run about 12 minutes. These scenes feature optional commentary from Columbus, Rapp, and Pascal. They are interesting, mainly one which shows Benny in a much more positive light, and the original ending, which is quite powerful and much better than the theatrical ending -- only one element is changed, but it's quite good.

7 out of 10 Jackasses

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