Tuesday, March 12, 2013

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

I'll start by saying that I don't think it's a coincidence that both RENT and The Phantom of the Opera released "live performance" recordings years after the movie adaptations came out.  In both cases, the movie failed to capture the essence of what made the stage production so enjoyable.

I went into some detail about the stage production in Part One.  Part Two will focus on what the movie adaptation does to improve, or not improve, upon its source material.

Even though I don't think RENT (2004) is a good movie, I also don't think it is a particularly bad one.  There is nothing that stands out as a glaring "Oh my god I can't believe they did this I can't look" like Phantom's casting of Gerard Butler.  RENT the movie was directed by Chris Columbus, who has a track record of making films that are competent, if not cutting edge.  Of course, RENT's main problem is that it needed someone who was cutting edge, who was willing to take risks with the material, to create something that might not have followed the musical to the letter, but captured its spirit.

Unfortunately, Chris Columbus is known for slavishly following source material to the letter, while draining it of its charm and excitement (see the first two Harry Potter movies).  With RENT, Columbus did several things that seem so right, yet one could also argue were mistakes.  The most significant is that he chose to fill the roles with members of the original cast, with the exception of Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Traci Thoms as Joanne.  On the one hand, that seems like the right move.  It was the original cast that inspired such a fervent, loyal following, and even eight years later, their chemistry was strong.  Anthony Rapp, the original Mark, has a charming quirkiness, while Adam Pascal is appropriately angsty as Roger.  Most of the cast is similarly good, and Dawson is a huge upgrade over Daphne Rubin-Vega.  I'm sorry, I know Rubin-Vega has her fans, but I can't stand her throaty smoker's voice or her Carol Channing whine.  She's the reason I never purchased the RENT soundtrack even though I like many of the songs.  

At the same time, one could argue that by casting the original actors, the movie loses a certain freshness.  It is generally believed that most of the characters are in their teens or 20s.  I'm not one who thinks that creativity automatically stops at the age of 30, so I don't find it unbelievable that they could be older in the movie.  But if Chris Columbus's goal was to portray 30-somethings, he needed to bring something different from what we see in the stage version, and I'm not sure he did.  (For that matter, I don't believe these characters are supposed to be older, given that Mimi tells Roger that she is 19.)  Columbus did bring something different, but I'm not sure it's an improvement.

The Good  

I'll start with a list of improvements Columbus did make because, let's face it, it will be shorter.  The first is that he took the jumbled first act and spread it over a few days instead of a few hours.  That means we don't have to suspend our disbelief that Roger would meet Mimi, Collins would meet Angel, Benny would seek to collect the rent, and Maureen would hold her protest all on the same night.

Columbus also grounds the movie in a specific time period: 1988 or 1989.  That is important because with the early 1990s came breakthroughs in the way HIV/AIDS was treated.  Until then, there was just AZT and the near-certainty that you would watch your friends die.  The stage version of RENT was set "sometime" during the 1980s or early 1990s, but it was never pinned down.  By choosing a specific year, the movie does render certain references anachronistic, such as Angel's Thelma and Louise reference in "Today 4 U."  But whatever, I never liked that song anyway.

Columbus also manages to use montages effectively for the most part, cleaning up awkwardness and confusion in the stage production.  For instance, in Act Two, a montage in "Without You" shows Angel's deterioration, Mimi's struggles with addiction, and Roger's frustration much better than the stage version could.  On the other hand, while "One Song Glory" probably needed some flashback scenes to explain what happened to Roger's last relationship, I don't like the way they overwhelm the song and prevent us from seeing Roger's anguish.

Finally, Columbus added a scene here or there that made Act Two slightly less choppy, such as when Mark and Joanne arrange a contract with the tabloid.  However, in doing so, Columbus did something else that I consider unforgivable, which I'll get into later.

Overall, I think he managed to showcase the actors' chemistry onscreen, or at least knew how to get out of the way.  The actors engage and seem wholly committed to the material, which as I noted, is what RENT requires. 

The Bad        

The Energy Is Gone.  While Columbus does stay faithful to the source material, his direction completely leeches the almost giddy, frenetic energy of the stage version.  In its place is a quieter, burnt-out tone.  If Columbus were trying to show struggling artists in their 30s, who are past the idealism of their 20s and are now living this life through sheer force of will, that would have been interesting.  However, nowhere in the movie does it suggest he is trying to do this.

See, for example, the stark differences between the openings in the stage production and the movie.

The stage production is constantly in motion, almost to the point where you have trouble following what is happening.  Characters whom we won't officially meet until later appear to set up the stage, reminding you that this is a stage-bound production and that they're not even going to honor the fourth wall.  Mark is exuberant, and he and Roger create an energy that reverberates off of the ceiling as they sing about the rent threat.      

By contrast, Rapp's Mark sounds tired and pessimistic.  Living the hard life isn't a fun adventure for him, and you get the feeling that the documentary is a last resort, not a "cool" experiment the way it is for Kantor's Mark.  That's not a bad acting choice: wouldn't you be tired of seeing such poverty even after a couple of years?  However, the fatigue factor -- while ever present -- is never really addressed throughout the course of the movie.  

The biggest factor in the movie's subdued tone is Columbus's choice to turn sung moments into dialogue.  In some ways, it solves problems with forced rhyming (see again Angel's "This body provides a comfortable home" line), but it also removes a lot of the clever, playful wordplay.  For instance, take Angel and Collins's first meeting in "You Okay, Honey?":

ANGEL: We'll get along fine.  Get you a coat, have a bite, make a night -- I'm flush.

COLLINS: My friends are waiting.

ANGEL: You're cute when you blush.  

Whereas in the movie, Wilson Jermaine Heredia's Angel is not the least bit playful, when he meets Collins or anywhere else.  To the point where it's actually startling, and a bit embarrassing, when Angel launches into "Today 4 U" in Mark and Roger's apartment.  

The tired, uninspired dialogue and the more subdued tone undercut the musical's message of seizing the day and living life to the fullest while you can (see "Another Day").  Because this is a structural issue, I'm not sure the problem could have been solved by casting younger actors.  (And for what it's worth, most of the cast in Live On Broadway were in their 30s.)  

It Is Bland.  And dare I say, too... white?  That's a slightly unfair charge, since Larson himself was white and grew up middle class, and Mark and Roger both come from white, middle-class backgrounds.  Yet while the movie shows glimpses of street life, and Mark and Roger's building is appropriately run down, there is something staid and... safe about the way their life is presented.  When I imagined Angel's funeral, I pictured it being in a small city church next to a deli, with a cemetery nearby -- not an ornate cathedral in the lush countryside.  I imagined Maureen and Joanne's confrontation song "Take Me Or Leave Me" taking place in a grungy hallway, not an expensive reception hall.  By contrast, desperate characters are constantly pushing their way to the forefront of the stage production -- the "Honest living!" squeegee man, the dispirited homeless singing about their condition, the HIV-positive man asking "Will I lose my dignity?".  Some of that is in the movie, but it is more... confined somehow.  Maybe Columbus, purveyor of incredibly white middle-class entertainment like Adventures in Babysitting and the Home Alone series, feared that if RENT were too gritty, it would scare away a potential audience.  That might be, but had Columbus -- or another director -- made such a movie, it would probably have gained more appreciation in retrospect and have become a cult classic.               

It Doesn't Fix Major Weaknesses in the Source Material.  And in some cases exacerbates them.  Take, for instance, the weak plot line about the characters having to pay rent.  The movie's opening not only doesn't clarify it, but also adds "flourishes" that make it more confusing.  In the stage production, only Mark and Roger are threatened with eviction from the building for not paying rent.  The others getting evicted are the homeless people in the lot next door.  In the movie, it appears that everyone in Mark and Roger's building is facing the rent threat, as well as the building next door and the building across the street.  So Benny owns the entire block?  Mark, Roger, and the other tenants all express their defiance by lighting the eviction notices on fire and tossing them out their windows.  That makes for a dramatic moment, but still an immensely confusing one.  Furthermore, why would Mark and Roger waste their heat source by tossing an entire garbage can filled with flaming papers out the window?

As with the stage production, there is no real follow up, apart from Maureen's vapid protest.  No loud tenant meetings, no protests in the hallway, nothing. 

Another failed opportunity is the plot line involving Mark "selling out."  In the stage version, Mark reluctantly signs the contract with the tabloid, and we see about a minute of his actual work before he quits and focuses on his own film making.  When a scene was added where he and Joanne meet the tabloid to discuss a contract, I thought Mark's "selling out" would be more developed.  Instead, Columbus cut the scene that showed why the tabloid went against everything Mark believed in.  The movie just shows Mark deciding, in the midst of singing "What You Own," that he wants to work for himself.  Therefore, we're left without understanding why Mark would turn his back on paid work -- especially when, as in the stage version, we never see the finished film!      

It Cut the Best Sequence in Act Two.  You could argue that some of the feelings expressed in "Halloween/Goodbye Love" are expressed in "Without You" or "What You Own," but this is still the most poignant sequence in the musical.  Angel has just died; the group is falling apart; and Mimi learns that Roger's worst fear is watching her die.  Yet you won't see most of this in the movie because Columbus cut it so that the scenes would flow better.  Oh, and because it featured Mark and Roger singing at each other when they talked in every other scene.  Dude, no one cares!  Everyone sings at everyone else in the movie, even with the added dialogue.

Part of "Goodbye Love" is in the movie, but without the Mark/Roger/Mimi scene, the group's separation feels like less of a loss.  The Roger-Mimi relationship especially gets the short shrift.      

At least the scene was filmed and later cut, so it is one of the DVD "extras."  Here is what the full "Goodbye Love" would have looked like had they left it in:


Again, RENT is not a bad movie.  It's just not a great one.  Watching it, you will wonder what "magic" people see in RENT, because all you see is a movie about a bunch of sad people that's kind of entertaining, but doesn't really address major issues in a meaningful way.  Then again, neither does the source material, but at least that has charm and energy.  That is one reason why I prefer watching the Live On Broadway production, though it doesn't hurt that the cast is fantastic.  While Kantor and Rapp are pretty much equal in terms of performance, I prefer Will Chase's Roger to Adam Pascal's.  Pascal has a unique, angsty voice, but tends to just stand there when he sings, whereas Chase's Roger is more dynamic and expressive overall.  And while I agree that Idina Menzel is a Broadway legend, Eden Espinosa does a terrific job with the Maureen character.  Traci Thoms is great in both the movie and Live On Broadway, but is a little better in the latter.  

So if you really love RENT, don't skip the movie if you haven't seen it, but know that the musical you love is probably better distilled in the Live On Broadway production.  

Wow, that was a lot to write for a musical that I hated until fairly recently.    

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