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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents
"We raise our glass—you bet your ass—to La Vie Boheme."
DVD ReviewRent was an instant sensation when it premiered on Broadway a decade ago—not only because a high-energy ensemble performed its exhilarating, emotional score to perfection, but because of the gritty themes the show squarely tackles. Though inspired by Puccini's century-old opera, La Bohème, Jonathan Larson's rock musical embeds itself in the here and now, immersing audiences in the contemporary culture of drugs, AIDS, poverty, and unbridled sexuality. Not since Hair a generation before had Broadway been jolted by such a modern, up-to-the-minute production, and though time has slightly softened its radical feel, Rent remains a relevant, affecting work.
The film version of Rent honors its stage roots, but under the aegis of Chris Columbus, it loses the stark, edgy quality that first put it on the map. The director of Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the first two Harry Potter movies seems loath to fully embrace the darkness pervading Larson's work, preferring to accentuate the positive instead. To be sure, the subject matter goes against Columbus' family-friendly grain, and the glossy, artificial air that often hovers over the film seems a direct result of his influence. Rent should be a cathartic, in-your-face experience, ripping us up before raising us up, but Columbus plays it safe, and the musical feels detached and distant as a result. The inherent power of the piece still prevails, but the bland vanilla coating dilutes its acidity, and leaves us to wonder how a more serious-minded, realistic director like Martin Scorsese (whom producer Robert De Niro actively courted), Spike Lee (who once was attached to the project), or Sam Mendes (also rumored to be considered) would interpret and visualize the material.
Rent follows a tight-knit group of artistic friends eking out a hand-to-mouth existence on New York's Lower East Side in the late 1980s while confronting a multitude of personal and social problems. Mark (Anthony Rapp), a struggling documentary filmmaker, and his HIV-positive roommate, Roger (Adam Pascal), a struggling musician and recovering junkie, live in a dank, dingy loft, where they entertain, counsel, console, bolster, and bond with an assortment of troubled yet sensitive pals. There's Mimi (Rosario Dawson), an HIV-positive, drug-addicted dancer in an S&M club, who becomes Roger's girlfriend; Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), an HIV-positive techno whiz; Tom's lover Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), an HIV-positive street musician and drag queen; Maureen (Idina Menzel), a free-spirit performance artist and Mark's former girlfriend; and Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a feisty lawyer and Maureen's new lesbian lover.
Also dropping in now and then is Benny (Taye Diggs), who left the group to marry a wealthy suburbanite, and is now the mouthpiece for the loft's stringent landlord, who demands the destitute tenants pay their rent or face eviction. Life as a starving artist no longer appeals to Benny, and his newfound financial security affords him a more realistic view of the Lower East Side. Yet he still feels a connection to his friends, and implores them to wake up and reexamine their lives. "This is Calcutta," he says. "Bohemia is dead." Mark and his gang, however, disagree, and fight to keep both their space and their lives intact.
La Bohème is without question a supreme romantic tragedy, but Rent—though far from cheerful—somehow puts a life-affirming spin on more depressing topics, and proves the power of love can often transcend the pain and suffering of disease, prejudice, and misfortune. Making the most of each day may seem like a trite message for an important theatrical work, but in the face of dire, terminal forces like AIDS, such an idea becomes inspiring—especially when it's swathed in a series of potent, eloquent songs penned by a man whose own story eerily follows the theme. (More on that below.)
Larson's score gives Rent its pulse, and few pop musicals can match the driving rhythms, diverse styles, and expressive lyrics that distinguish it. Songs such as I'll Cover You, Will I, Without You, What You Own, Light My Candle, and the hard-rocking title tune crawl under our skin and resonate even more than the dramatic events. For sheer electricity and visceral impact, it's tough to beat Larson's stirring music.
Chemistry, of course, is crucial for an ensemble piece, and by importing all but two members of the original Broadway cast, Rent has it in spades. Dawson and Thoms are the newcomers, but they meld remarkably well with the show's seasoned pros. Both women possess powerhouse voices and strike just the right emotional note. As the central female lead, Dawson has the tougher job, but makes Mimi her own with a sensual and luminous portrayal. The rest of the cast masterfully recreates their roles, fueling them with a palpable, infectious energy that never wanes. Whether dancing on tables during the joyous La Vie Bohème or pondering how to "measure a year in the life" in the beautiful anthem Seasons of Love, Rapp, Pascal, Menzel, and company put their heart and soul into their performances.
Yet despite so many positive elements, the movie version of Rent just doesn't work for me. I love the score and the actors, but the film never gives me that swift kick in the gut I expect and crave. Larson's work brims with passion, but Columbus, intentionally or not, tempers it. By courting teenage girls and grandmothers, he turns a pot of boiling water down to a simmer, and as a result, his film warms instead of scalds us. Rent could have been the West Side Story of the new millennium—raw, real, raging—but instead it's just a typical Hollywood musical that happens to be set in the slums. And that's a shame.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Unlike the Alphabet City lofts that house the characters, the widescreen anamorphic transfer looks fresh and crisp. And why shouldn't it? Rent debuted in theaters a mere three months ago, so hasn't yet had time to deteriorate. Vibrant color, wonderful clarity, and good contrast distinguish this high-quality treatment from Sony, which also features strong black levels, true and natural fleshtones, and not a bit of grain. More than half of Rent transpires at night, and though a few scenes come across as overly dark, the majority possess solid shadow detail and a lush richness.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Here's where Rent needs to shine, and the DD 5.1 track does so brilliantly. With exceptional purity of sound, superior fidelity, and a blissful absence of distortion, Jonathan Larson's infectious, high-octane score bursts forth, surrounding us with pulsating energy, nuance, and tonal depth. The vocals sound robust and distinct, even during the most complex arrangements, and the orchestra—despite the driving rock tempos—never drowns them out. The judicious use of bass also keeps the mix nicely balanced and easy on the ears, while dialogue—whether spoken or sung—is always clear and comprehendible. This is definitely a track that begs to be cranked up, and few audiophiles or musical enthusiasts will be able to resist the temptation.
Audio Transfer Grade: A+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 29 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring Benchwarmers, Marie Antoinette, The Da Vinci Code, The Legend of Zorro, Freedomland, Fun With Dick and Jane, Memoirs of a Geisha
4 Deleted Scenes
1 Alternate Endings
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Chris Columbus and actors Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
In many ways, the tragic story of Jonathan Larson is more dramatic and inspiring than Rent itself, and the feature-length documentary, No Day But Today—the centerpiece of Disc 2—presents an in-depth portrait of this musical genius. Interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and Rent cast members illuminate Larson's endearingly quirky personality, and the visionary talent that would spawn his masterwork. We hear about his Leave It to Beaver childhood, his Bohemian existence in a dumpy fifth-floor walkup, his first-hand experience with the AIDS epidemic, and how he wanted to "change the face" of musical theater by uniting MTV and Broadway. The most absorbing portion of the film details Rent's theatrical development, culminating with Larson's unexpected death at age 35 from an aortic aneurysm (due to Marfan's Syndrome) the night before the show's off-Broadway premiere. The documentary also looks at the Rent phenomenon, and the multi-year struggle to bring the musical to the screen. Divided into six parts, which can be viewed individually or as a whole, the 109-minute film runs a little long and relies too heavily on gushy testimonials, but nevertheless maintains interest, and includes several moving moments.
Next up are four deleted scenes (with optional commentary), which fans of the Broadway show will especially appreciate...even as they provoke rage. The cut dialogue scenes are negligible, but excising two important and emotional musical numbers, Halloween and Goodbye Love, is tantamount to treason. Both songs lend Mark's character a vital depth it otherwise lacks, and make him at last seem like a participant in the proceedings instead of a bystander. Goodbye Love especially serves a vital purpose, beautifully setting up the dramatic final act, while adding essential texture to Mark and Roger's relationship. Both men exquisitely perform the song, which also includes a dynamite coda by Dawson. Columbus justifies the cut by saying Goodbye Love infuses the film with "too much emotion," but that's exactly what everyone who goes to see Rent desires! He also notes how it seemed awkward for Roger and Mark to sing to each other at such a late stage in the film, when they hadn't done so before—another ludicrous excuse. By second-guessing audience reaction and dictating how we should feel, Columbus robs Rent of the subtleties and nuances that could have made it a great film.
An alternate ending is also included, and I'm happy to report Columbus made the correct decision in abandoning it. The concept returns the characters to the theatrical stage where they open the movie, and distances us from the world and events in which we've been immersed for more than two hours. We don't want to leave that world or forget those events so quickly, and thankfully screenwriter Stephen Chbosky convinced Columbus to revamp the ending.
Two public service announcements for the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation and the National Marfan Foundation, along with a bunch of trailers, complete the extras package.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsWith its soaring score and fine performances, the movie version of Rent is slick and entertaining, but never delivers the profound, emotionally affecting experience we crave. Director Chris Columbus gives us a tantalizing taste of what the show is about, but if you want the whole meal, you'll have to go to Broadway. High quality transfers (especially the audio) and a thoughtful salute to composer Jonathan Larson help make this two-disc special edition a handsome keepsake for "Rentheads," but all others heed this advice: Buy the soundtrack, rent the film.
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