There’s a story about a man on a quest who tracks down an old poet because he wants to probe more deeply, to the very core of his poetry. When he finally finds the old guy in a hellhole of an artist’s garret, the poet fixes him with a steely eye and asks, “How far do you want to go?” The seeker loses his nerve and says, “Oh, just far enough to say I’ve been there.”
Rent is not that kind of movie.
So I had second thoughts about taking my 79-year-old mother to see it (and third thoughts, and fourth thoughts). Created by Jonathan Larson, who died of AIDS a couple of weeks after it opened on Broadway, Rent clearly comes across as a musical written by a man who isn’t holding anything back?#34;it’s an in-your-face, unflinching, defiant, unromanticized celebration of New York Bohemian artists in the age of AIDS, based on the opera La Boheme.
And Chris Columbus, who directed the film version, clearly isn’t about to be accused of toning it down. After Home Alone and Harry Potter, Columbus, in effect, “graduates” to this gritty, urban landscape filled with characters rejected by, and in turn rejecting, mainstream, middle-class values. But Columbus is comfortable with “over the top” filmmaking, and this one feels hyperdriven, probably more than it needs to be. It isn’t quite as polished or effective as Chicago, but it’s filled with passion and the kind of ferocious conviction missing from most Hollywood films these days?#34;certainly from most musicals.
This was my first time through. I haven’t seen the stage production, so I can’t speak to changes or liberties taken, but I’m guessing its creator would not have been disappointed. The music is rock-operatic, consistently interesting, if not memorable (“Seasons of Love” was the only “hit” to emerge, though “La Vie Boheme” is a grand anthem to the Bohemian lifestyle). The lyrics, however, aren’t easily comprehensible, so a dimension is lost to the overly raucous arrangements. If you can get the lyrics and read them in advance, you’ll be better off.
Or, maybe like most modern opera productions, they should have provided subtitles.
With its emphasis on living for today (what other choice did people with AIDS have when it was written?) and the redemptive power of love, this film covers some of the same ground as Moulin Rouge, or, given the chronology perhaps, vice versa. Rent appears to pull a major punch at the end with its treatment of Mimi’s demise (compared to the opera anyway), which may or may not be a nod to its target audience, but overall, this film consistently entertains and unsettles its audience?#34;what more could a true Bohemian ask? After all, the film’s model of ideal love is mainstream society’s least-accepted individual?#34;the sexually ambivalent drag queen (who goes by the transcendent tag, Angel).
With people shooting up, going through withdrawal, dying of AIDS, casually using recreational drugs, and cross-dressing, this may not be for the faint of sensibility. Then again, maybe it is. When the film ended, I gingerly awaited the reaction of my dear mother, who knew nothing about it in advance (but who loves musicals).
“That was very moving,” she said. “It was really like an opera.”
In keeping with the season, which, after all, includes the story of a remarkable birth, we’re hoping to feature some of our readers’ own birth stories. So if you’ve got an amazing birth story to tell?#34;your own, your children’s, whatever the season?#34;drop us an e-mail at email@example.com or call 613-3326.
Dig out those old photos. We’ll contact you to set up a quick interview.