Stage to screen adaptations of musicals are a tricky business. For every Chicago or Cabaret that makes a smooth transition from Broadway to your local multiplex there are the Evitas and Phantom of the Operas that manage to hit only sour notes. Happily, the new version of Rent—a Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway hit long considered to be almost unfilmable—hits most of the right notes.
The story of a group of artists in Manhattan’s Alphabet City, struggling with homelessness, drug addiction and AIDS as the 1980s turn into the 1990s has always been thin dramatically—the story isn’t that compelling and full of unbelievable contrivances—but that doesn’t seem to matter to audiences who have connected with the characters. Each of the characters goes on a journey and learns something about the true meaning of camaraderie and love. Story-wise the compelling aspect of Rent is that even though it is about death and dying, it remains a joyous commemoration of life and love.
Most of the Broadway cast returns, including Jesse L. Martin, better known as Lt. Green on television’s Law and Order. His stand-out performance as Tom Collins made me wish that his cop show would consider an all dancing-all singing episode.
Former Harry Potter director Christopher Columbus presents Rent as a hybrid of rock video and traditional Hollywood musical, but I can’t help but wonder what true-blue New York filmmakers like Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese—both of whom were attached to direct in various points of development—would have done with this material.