Monday, January 4, 2016

Classics: A Review of Rent By Lauren Ennis

As we have reached the end of one year and the start of another, we reflect upon all that has been lost and gained in the past three-hundred sixty-five days and our hopes for the days to come. Leading up to the New Year, televisions, radios, and websites have been flooded with countdowns of the pop-culture and political events of the past year. As enjoyable as those lists may be to build up anticipation for the New Year, they can never fully measure the moments of success, loss, laughter, and strife that make up a year for any given individual. The 2005 film Rent offers a simple, but more effective unit to measure the 525,600 minutes in a year; love. Based upon the hit musical of the same name, Rent chronicles the highs and lows of one year in the life of a group of friends as they struggle against addiction, illness, and unemployment while living ‘la vie boheme’ to the fullest.
Viva la vie boheme!

The story begins on Christmas Eve 1989 in New York’s Lower East Side as starving artists and roommates Mark (Anthony Rapp) and Roger (Adam Pascal) learn that their former friend turned landlord, Benny (Taye Diggs), is planning to evict them unless they are able to pay the year’s rent within twenty-four hours. The pair are soon saved from homelessness when their friend, former professor and anarchist Collins (Jessse L. Martin), returns to town with both a financial windfall and his new lover, transsexual street performer Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). Complications ensue as Roger meets and is captivated by heroin addicted stripper, Mimi (Rosario Dawson), while in the midst of his grief following the death of his girlfriend and struggle to remain drug free after overcoming his own addiction. Mark faces girl trouble of his own as his ex-girlfriend, performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), continues to use him for his skills as a filmmaker, despite having left him to pursue a relationship with successful lawyer Joanne (Tracie Thoms). As the story progresses, the group comes together through shared artistic passion and love, even as distrust, misunderstanding, and tragedy threaten to tear them apart.

Originally adapted as a modern take on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, the musical Rent was a cutting edge hit when it debuted in 1996. Prior to the show’s opening, musicals had come to be identified with safe, reliable, and family friendly fare that held little relevance in the outside world. In composer Jonathan Larson’s hands, however, the story of the lives and loves of the bohemian set became a call to artistic arms and a stand of solidarity in the midst of the social ostracism which was so common during the heart of the AIDS epidemic. When the film was released nine years later, critics complained that the story had lost some of the bite that had made it so popular a decade earlier, citing AIDS and addiction as themes that no longer held relevance. Ten years after the film’s release, however, it is all too evident just how pertinent those ‘outdated’ issues actually are as the US finds itself in the midst of a heroin epidemic which has led to a resurgence in HIV and both drug addiction and HIV continue to plague nations across the globe. Beyond it’s ripped-from-the-headlines plot, the film also contains themes such as artistic struggle, poverty, friendship, acceptance, and love that speak to all ages and cultures, which ensures that the story holds meaning for all generations.
525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year in the life?

Stage to film is a complex transition that many shows fail to successfully make. Through the efforts of the film’s crew and stellar cast, however, Rent packs an equal emotional punch as both a stage production and a film.  The success of this transition is due to a combination of factors, particularly the power of its songs, which are by turns powerful rock anthems and poignant ballads, but are each memorable enough to keep audiences humming for days. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of the success of this transition is the film’s multi-talented cast, who bring each of the film’s musical numbers, dance sequences, and straight-dialogue scenes to vibrant life. Rather than casting Hollywood stars in order to guarantee ticket sales, the film’s makers took the risk of choosing to maintain the story’s integrity and cast the people who know it best; its original stars. All of the film’s principal roles, with the exceptions of Mimi and Joanne, are portrayed by members of the 1996 Broadway cast, and the knowledge of and passion for the story that each of actors possess is evident in every frame. Anthony Rapp’s combination of earnestness, awkward uncertainty, and boyish charm make him an ideal every-man as he narrates the tale. Adam Pascal’s tormented performance as Roger elevates his character beyond self-described ‘pretty-boy frontman’ to a multifaceted portrait of young man overcoming his demons and coming to terms with his own mortality. Jesse L. Martin brings genuine emotion and soulfulness to his subtle role as Collins, and perfectly captures the struggle to remain hopeful in the face of illness and personal loss. Idina Menzel is nothing short of explosive in her performance as the impulsive and attention-hungry Maureen, and adds a vulnerability to her role that humanizes what could have easily been an over-the-top part. Wilson Jermaine Heredia is a breath of life in his performance as the nurturing Angel, in which he provides the film with many of its laughs and some of its most tearful moments. Newcomers Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson successfully make their roles their own as Thoms evokes Joanne’s outward restraint and inward passion and Dawson exemplifies both Mimi’s street-wise cynicism and sensuality and the vulnerability that those qualities disguise. Taye Diggs also lends a convincing combination of charm and ruthlessness to his portrayal of bohemian turned Wall-street sell-out Benny.

Written as ‘the MTV generation’s answer to La Boheme’ according to Larson, Rent has become a true phenomenon all its own. Proving that some things never change, the central themes of embracing life in the face of adversity and the importance of love and friendship that both works share remain powerful messages, even in the new millennium. Rock-opera, coming of age story, romance, and drama, Rent is all these things and more with something for almost every viewer. As we approach a new year, I can think of no better question to ponder than that which the film’s most iconic song asks, “how do you measure a year in the life?”.
No day but today

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