Friday, March 8, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: RENT (Part One)

I have a somewhat complicated attitude toward RENT.  Had you asked me even two years ago, I would have said flat out that I hated it.  I hated its confused storytelling, its whiny protagonists, and its overplayed affirmation songs.

I saw RENT live for the first and only time in London in 1998.  I was able to see most of the original cast, save Daphne Rubin-Vega's Mimi, which was fortunate.  I remember feeling bored and confused, somewhat moved during the second half, but only able to remember two songs afterward: "One Song Glory" and "Light My Candle."  RENT wasn't a revolution -- it was a mess.

It seemed almost set up to fail.  Creator Jonathan Larson, a promising Broadway writer and composer, died at a young age on the morning of RENT's opening in 1996.  His death added another layer of tragedy to his musical, which dealt substantially with young characters facing their mortality, and fueled the legend of RENT as something Real and Important that had Something to Say.  I had heard over and over that seeing RENT changed people's lives.  Therefore, I came in with expectations soaring, and walked out dragging them behind me.

I continued to feel that way until fairly recently.  Then I started watching RENT: Filmed Live On Broadway (2008) on YouTube, and the musical grew on me.  Now I would say that I like parts of RENT, but that the parts don't add up to a whole.  Therefore, while I like the parts, I still don't like the musical overall.  Its structure is far too clunky, something that probably would have been addressed had Larson lived, but is now set in stone forever.

The movie version of RENT does not do much to improve upon these flaws, and has problems of its own, which is why it joins Evita and The Phantom of the Opera as a Movie Musical That Got It Wrong, as opposed to Dreamgirls and Les Miserables.  In discussing the movie, I will first look at the musical itself, its flaws and its strengths.  I will then look at the movie in comparison. 

The Musical

In some cases, I can get by discussing the movie without seeing its source material.  Most of the time I have no choice, since I don't live near Broadway or the musical closed down.  In this case, I can't talk about the movie without talking about the source material first.  The movie alone is kind of pleasant, but rather confusing and muted.  From the movie alone, you would never guess that RENT was so interestingly fucked up.

The musical is modeled loosely on Puccini's opera, La Boheme.  While there is some dialogue, most of the musical is sung.  The overarching story -- to the extent that there is one -- revolves around Mark, an aspiring filmaker, and Roger, a musician and ex-heroin addict.  They live in an unheated loft at the top of an industrial building in New York's East Village in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  Next to the building is a lot where many homeless people live.  Mark and Roger have been living rent-free, until one day they learn that their former friend Benny, the building's owner, has decided to makeover the building and the lot... and Mark and Roger will have to pay rent!  Benny tells them that the threat will be revoked if Mark convinces his ex-girlfriend Maureen to stop her protest of the homeless people's eviction from the lot.  Maureen is now seeing a lawyer from Harvard named Joanne, who is constantly worried that Maureen will stray.  Maureen refuses to stop the protest, and Mark's footage of the ensuing riot gets on the evening news, which gains him unexpected fame.

Meanwhile, Mark and Roger's friend Tom Collins, a professor and anarchist, has returned to New York, only to get a rude welcome when two homeless men mug him.  He receives help from Angel, a street performer and drag queen, with whom he is instantly smitten.  Finally, Roger, who recently lost his girlfriend to suicide, meets Mimi, a 19-year old dancer at a strip club who is a heroin addict.  He struggles with his feelings for Mimi, until they both learn that the other is HIV-positive (as are Collins and Angel).  The rest of the musical looks in varying ways at themes of love, connection, and identity.  

Act One takes place over one day, while Act Two takes place over one year.  This would be the source of many of RENT's problems.

It Doesn't Flow.  Act One takes place on Christmas Eve and ends shortly after Maureen's protest.  Did I mention that Act Two crams in an entire YEAR?  Needless to say, Act One feels too long and Act Two feels too short.  Even worse, Act One has two or three scenes that feel like they are meant to be the last before intermission -- especially the montage of singing that leads to Maureen's dramatic entrance.  There is this build up, build up, build up to Maureen's protest, so when she finally appears, I expect the protest to be the first scene in Act Two.  But no, it's time for Maureen to give her protest, and... I'll save the details for later.  Only after an extended sequence called "La Vie Boheme," an affectionate homage to La Boheme, does Act One finally end.

Act Two then showcases the characters' struggles and conflicts following that "magical night" in Act One.  (Note that not only does Act One take place on one day, but given that it starts at "December 24th, 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time," it takes place over just three hours.)  That's where things start to get interesting.  But instead of unfolding smoothly and organically, Act Two just jerks along to its (admittedly touching) conclusion.  By the end, I feel as though I should have seen these people learn and grow, but instead all I saw was repetition.  Of course, maybe I wouldn't feel that way if there were an actual story.

Where Is the Story?  RENT is about Mark and Roger trying to figure out how to pay the rent they owe Benny.  Or is it about Mark, Maureen, and company fighting to save the homeless people's encampment?  Or is it about Roger and Mimi learning to love and trust?  Or is it about Angel and Collins's one true love?  You could argue that RENT is about all of these things.  The problem is that it doesn't showcase them very well.     

Take the first plot line, the very thing that RENT is supposed to be about -- paying rent!  Mark and Roger aren't earning any money, so homelessness should be of great concern.  The title song suggests that the musical's main plot will involve the characters either taking a stand against paying rent or finding ways to pay it.  Yet after the title song, the rent threat is virtually forgotten.  Maybe the reason Mark and Roger aren't more concerned about being homeless is because their parents keep calling them.  But that's for later.

Then there is the plot with Maureen's protest.  So much of Act One is spent building up to Maureen -- she is always mentioned, but never seen.  Then she finally appears to give what we assume will be the dramatic performance of a lifetime.  Instead, it is silly and nonsensical, involving a cow in "Cyberland".  Certainly attention grabbing, but with a negligible connection to the circumstances she's protesting.  Her song, with minor lyric changes, could have been sung anywhere.  Then, once the protest is over, Maureen lapses into secondary character status for the rest of the musical.

The most well-developed plot line involves Roger and Mimi, but even that becomes a repeated pattern of arguing and breaking up.  RENT constantly threatens to be about Something, but usually Something can only be seen at the margins, when minor characters sing, instead of in the main plots.

Unlikeable Characters.  The characters in RENT actually grew on me with subsequent viewings, but still, on paper they have to be some of the most unsympathetic characters around.  Mark and Roger expect to be able to live rent-free forever (in, granted, a shit hole), without having to adopt adult responsibilities like finding a job that earns money.  In fact, when Mark finally gets a job working for a tabloid, he rejects it as going against his values.  The way the tabloid is presented, we are supposed to support his actions and his commitment to his craft... yet we never actually get to see the movie that he spends so much time filming.  Maureen is self obsessed and careless, flirting with and sleeping with everyone who catches her fancy, not caring how it affects Joanne.

Even the "sweetheart" characters are rough around the edges.  At one point, Collins aids Mark and Roger with money that he essentially stole from an ATM -- however, we're supposed to find it clever and sweet, because he did it by programming the ATM to respond to the code "ANGEL."  As for Angel, our first major introduction to him is in the song "Today 4 U," where he sings about killing a dog for money.  Oh, he didn't actually kill it with his bare hands, but was merely paid to drive the dog insane until it killed itself by jumping off a building.  Never mind that akitas are not little yappy dogs as portrayed.

That may be one reason why I didn't respond to Angel as a character.  He is supposed to be the heart of the group, to the point where other characters are questioning how they can go on without him, yet I never saw his positive, life-changing influence.  He takes Collins to an affirmation meeting, yes, and is kind to a homeless woman, but that's it.  Then in Act Two, everyone is like: "OMG, Angel, you were so original and amazing!" and I'm like: "Huh?"  It doesn't help that I don't like either of Angel's big numbers, "Today 4 U" or "I'll Cover You."

The character I like best is Joanne -- especially as played by Traci Thoms.  She is the only member of the group who is earnest, hard working, and well meaning.  Next is Mimi, who, despite her self-destructive behavior, manages to hold onto a somewhat optimistic view of life.       

That Brings Me to What I Did Like.  Despite RENT's obvious flaws, it has a certain frenetic charm that gets inside you when you least expect it.  Songs constantly run into each other and the tempo changes at the blink of an eye.  That irritated me when I watched the stage production in 1998, but not as much when I watched the Live on Broadway performance, maybe because it was easier for me to follow.  One minute you're watching a soulful ballad, the next a charged-up group song.  RENT couldn't be more different in its approach from the 80s mega-musicals, with their emphasis on soaring ballads, dutiful lyrics, and spectacle.

The stage production has a certain raggedness that works in its favor.  The main characters' lives are frequently interrupted by calls from their parents, which provide some humorous moments.  ("Kitten: no Doc Martens this time.")  Homeless characters gather together to sing about "no sleigh bells, no Santa Claus, no yule log, no tinsel" on their Christmas.  The staging is frequently jumbled, and though it could benefit from some smoothing out, even that has a certain charm, as if you are getting a sense of what New York living is like, with everyone on top of each other.

The song lyrics are frequently creative, eschewing simple "june/spoon" rhymes.  "Light My Candle" is a standout:

MIMI: They say that I have the best ass below 14th Street.  Is it true?

ROGER: What?

MIMI: You're staring again.

ROGER: Oh no.  I mean you do -- have a nice -- I mean --

Though sometimes the creativity produces clunky results:                   

ANGEL: This body provides a comfortable home for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

COLLINS: As does mine.

ANGEL:  We'll get along fine.


MARK: Why are entire years strewn on the cutting room floor of memory?  When single frames from one magic night forever flicker in close-up on the 3D IMAX of my mind?      

Yet the musical would undoubtedly fail without the enthusiasm of its cast.  RENT demands that its cast not only believe whole heartedly in the material, but that they give their all during each performance.  From the Live on Broadway performance, at least, it is clear that the cast more than meets the challenge.  For instance, while I'm not sold on the Angel character, I was drawn to the performance of the actor, Justin Johnston.  Also great were Adam Kantor as Mark, Will Chase as Roger, Renee Goldsberry as Mimi, Eden Espinosa as Maureen, Traci Thoms as Joanne, Michael McElroy as Collins, and Rodney Hicks as Benny.  The whole cast, really -- even the supporting cast.  Maybe they were extra enthusiastic because it was their last performance, or because they were being filmed, but it shows how enthusiasm and commitment can really elevate the material.  

So while I would not say I like RENT per se, there is a lot that I like about it, which is more than I could say two years ago.  Unfortunately, a lot of what I like did not make it into the movie.
Next Time: Part Two, how the movie improves (and doesn't improve) upon the stage production.       


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