Rent, the musical which brought new, younger audiences to Broadway in the wake of the tragedy of the opening-night death of its composer, Jonathan Larson, has finally made it to the screen. Crafted with obvious care and deep love by director Chris Columbus and his team, it is an update of Puccini's La Boheme, set in Manhattan's Lower East Side of 1989, when struggling artists fought real-estate developers for the right to live and create in their tenement squats. The specter of AIDS hangs heavily over the piece with the lovers, musician Roger (Adam Pascal) and exotic dancer Mimi (Rosario Dawson), as well as their transvestite friend, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), all HIV-infected.
It's a gloomy, heartfelt premise which-in this film version-can't really be called a musical comedy, as the laughs are few and far between. Sarah Silverman pops up in a cameo as a rapacious TV producer, and you can actually feel the audience's relief at having someone onscreen with fresh comic energy and the whip-crack smarts to zing it through in a minimum of time. Larson was responsible for the book as well as the music and lyrics of the show, and while his talent is evident in a song like "Seasons of Love," many others are raucously unmemorable, and sometimes downright flatfooted ("Who do you think you are? Barging in on me and my guitar?"). Columbus really "opens up" the show only once, in a fantasy dance number set to "Tango," involving Maureen (Idina Menzel), the flighty performance artist, and her two lovers, lesbian lawyer Joanne (Tracie Thomas) and aspiring filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp). Snazzily choreographed by Keith Young, it also benefits from Columbus' decision not to edit the number to MTV pieces (a relief after the "chop-chop but can they really dance?" technique of most recent musicals like Chicago and You Got Served).
A singular play-into-film courage is also evident in the casting of Rent's original stage actors in the parts they created. We're so used to seeing movie stars from Rosalind Russell to Catherine Zeta-Jones committing cinema larceny in roles Ethel Merman and Chita Rivera made their own that this impulse has the feel of genuine, rare-for-Hollywood sincerity. However, there's no escaping the fact that some of the actors seem a tad old to play these burningly impassioned young souls, and their performances have a canned feel resulting from maybe having done it once too often. (Rent is now in its ninth year on Broadway.) The most successful of the actors are, ironically, two movie newcomers to the cast. Dawson brings lush exotic beauty, pants-popping dance moves and a lovely, lyrical singing voice. Thomas has some thrillingly soaring vocal pipes and a spunky energy as don't-take-no-shit Joanne.