Rent

March 2nd, 2006 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Directed by Chris Columbus

Starring Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Jesse L Martin, Idina Menzel, Tracie Thomas

You can’t escape fads. They permeate what we wear, what we listen to, and what we see on a cinema screen. The relationship between what’s popular with the movie going public and what movie studios produce to try and make money is a real chicken-and-egg scenario. Do we really want to see all the documentaries that are still hitting the screens post Bowling for Columbine? Or, because we keep watching them, do studios keep churning them out? Are we responding to them or the other way round?

There are a few movie fads around at the moment; ’tis very much the season for classic horror remakes, with When a Stranger Calls, and The Hills Have Eyes (following on from remakes of Dawn of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Computer-generated fantasy adventures are still the flavour of blockbuster season thanks to the gauntlet thrown down by the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Another fad only now trying to be born is that of the stage play. It’s not the first time stage musicals have hit the screen — we’ve had La Cage Aux Folles, Cabaret, Victor/Victoria and Fiddler on the Roof all in the last 35 years. But after Phantom of the Opera did modestly well and The Producers burst free of its stagey limitations, now we have the coolest cat from 1990s Broadway, Rent. You can bet the studios are snapping up the rights to Cats, Miss Saigon, Starlight Express and Guys and Dolls as fast as they can.

But here’s a note to directors trying to make a movie out a stage musical; the essence of seeing a theatre performance is the presence in the music. If that’s all a show has, there’s nothing to translate to the screen.

Movie audiences usually demand much more depth in the story than a few hours of musical numbers can offer. If you’re not familiar with Rent, you’re unlikely to be any more so after seeing this film. It’s less a story and more a few snippets in the lives of a group of friends and lovers in New York at the end of the 80’s all living in different ways with being HIV positive.

They sing, dance and don’t do much else. If that’s all you want from a movie, go and enjoy. If you want a character arc, a point and a resolution, there are far better character pieces around at the moment. And if you don’t like singing and dancing, it’ll be like two hours of Chinese water torture. It’s not just a Disney musical where a moment of profundity results in a song; almost everything is sung, a device that engages on stage but just looks stupid on screen, making it even harder to invest anything in the people you’re watching.

Now over 15 years old, Rent has been dismissed by a lot of US critics as being irrelevant. And while it’s true the fight against HIV is never irrelevant, the world depicted is too distant to be contemporary and too recent to be history. Where the danger of irrelevance really lies is that it will appeal to too narrow a field — plenty of moviegoers just won’t get it.

And if these shortfalls don’t get you, the technical hitches will push you rudely out of the experience. Several of the loudest songs feature music so loud you can’t hear any lyrics, as if the sound engineer just forgot to hold the mike close enough to the actors and they didn’t have enough tape left to do anything about it. In a film made by a large international studio it’s unforgivable.

At times ludicrous, mostly sloppily structured and wholly repetitive, Rent might make you one of those in the audience asking yourself why these layabouts don’t stop singing about being poverty-stricken artists and just go and get jobs.


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