As a stage musical, Rent is an incredible creation that captivates and pulls heartstrings. At the Nederlander Theater, the audience develops an intimate relationship with the characters, understanding them and wanting nothing but the best for them. However, that much-needed relationship and the musical’s command are not present in the silver screen adaptation.
Starting strong with the title number, the characters sing in East Village-reminiscent locations. A strong feature of the film, the musical is rooted in the environment that inspired it. However, the film nosedives. Brilliant scenes are few and far between but include “Santa Fe” and “Over the Moon.” The best is “Take Me or Leave Me,” when the Jeffersons host a soirée to celebrate Maureen and Joanne’s engagement. When the women quarrel about Maureen’s faithfulness in front of unsuspecting guests, a wonderful dramatic and comedic moment is born.
But Chris Columbus’s adaptation proves that serious, issue-driven musical theater seldom succeeds as film. Rent, as a film, gives the impression that film musicals—save Rob Marshall’s successful Chicago film from 2002—can be nothing but lighthearted fare in which characters sing and dance their troubles into the hearth, because this one does not work. During several scenes, the dialogue and characters are high camp, despite the fact that the verbatim dialogue and characters are convincing in a theater setting. In addition, parts of the original libretto are removed from their settings as songs, here spoken as straight dialogue. An interesting idea, the problem is that the actors speak in riming phrases, which disturbs the realism that Columbus attempts to deliver. Theater prizes suspension of disbelief, while film operates in realism; the divergent schemas lead to the film’s downfall, as a work rooted in the theatrical tradition cannot function under the limit(ation)s of film.
A person wanting to experience the real magic of Rent needs to visit the Nederlander Theater, refusing to see the film as an accurate representation of Jonathan Larson’s seminal and groundbreaking period piece.