Saturday, August 19, 2006

Rent (Columbus, 2005)

In the late 90’s, there were two plays that erupted onto the New York musical theatre scene and were hailed as the rebirth of the rock musical. The first was Jonathan Larson’s Rent which garnered a lot of attention because its composer had died tragically just hours after the final dress rehearsal. The second was John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which beat Rent to movie screens by about four years. Whereas the latter is a soul-searching journey of personal identity told with extraordinary wit and music inspired by David Bowie, the former is an insipid, naïve tale of eight friends living in Greenwich Village waiting for someone to appreciate their untapped genius/inner beauty with music inspired by Rick Springfield.

There are many, many flaws in both the play and the film version of Rent; however, there is one that stands out among the others as simply deadly. We are asked to extend our sympathy to a group of characters that seemingly see no connection between their motto “No day but today” - which is repeated ad nauseum - and their inability to pay their bills. I agree that it is a shame that money drives so much of our thinking in America and that we should not forget to experience pleasure while we have the ability to do so, but seriously. Grow up. Don’t sully other artists who are actually sacrificing to make a difference in this world by whining about how you don’t get paid to sit at home and indulge in “mucho masturbation.” You’ve got all this artistic integrity that nobody appreciates? Boo hoo. Get in line. The arts certainly should be better funded in the United States, but being an artist means having a responsibility to society, even if it’s not always appreciated. Besides, you know who else “sold out” and took money from sources that weren’t exactly sparkling and pure? Shakespeare, Mozart, Moliere, Michaelangelo, etc., etc. The list goes on.

If this enormous helping of self-pity and myopia weren’t bad enough, Larson piggybacks onto the AIDS tragedy by making not one, not two, but four of his characters HIV-positive. While this is a worthy topic for discussion, there is no evidence in the film that anyone has a genuine understanding of the epidemic that could not be gleaned from reading about it in a textbook. Nor does he seem to be willing to make any kind of political statement apart from appropriating the slogan of Act Up and shouting it during the film’s most offensive number, “La Vie Boheme”. Larson may have known people with the disease during his lifetime, but here he uses it as a cheap tool to manipulate our emotions. Who will be lost? Who will live to proclaim the need for hope? With characters this transparent and unlikable, who really cares?

Six members of the original Broadway cast reprise their roles in the film, and it must be said that they are, for the most part, a talented, passionate bunch that sincerely believe in the project. I was especially taken by the charisma of Idina Menzel and Jesse L. Martin in the roles of Maureen and Collins. Rosario Dawson, who was not in the original cast, also shines during her featured number, “Out Tonight”. Unfortunately, they have devoted their passions to work with no understanding of the world that exists outside of its own neighborhood. It has no interest in understanding the politics surrounding the AIDS crisis and arts funding in America. It begs us to be moved by characters whose most notable quality seems to be that they are able to name drop Lenny Bruce and Vaclav Havel, but who don’t have a fraction of their guts. It is a film that does not see the irony in celebrating “anyone out of the mainstream” when it is directed by the guy who brought us Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. It is a film that is naïve enough to pay tribute to the Sex Pistols and then in the same breath tell us that we should never play “the fame game”. The Sex Pistols may have taken an unusual path to stardom, but they most certainly were playing the game. This is more than can be said about the characters in Rent who seem to be reluctant to take any sort of action lest it disrupt the shimmering glow of their precious artistic purity.



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