Asleep on Pins
How do you document real life
When real life’s getting more
Like fiction each day?
Back in the day, performance art was “happening” in particular ways. Artists raged on stages in warehouses, backed by multiple tv monitors and unreliable sound systems, pronouncing their frustrations to like-minded audiences. Rent remembers. It remembers performance artists, just as it remembers transvestites, strippers, evictees, heroin addicts, and thin-voiced rockboys with poofty hair. It also remembers AIDS.
Though all of these elements are still with us—indeed, though the play’s targeted political and social imbalances remain entrenched—Chris Columbus’ movie version of Rent, first staged in 1996, seems dated. True, Jonathan Larson’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning big doozy rock musical took years to reach the screen, early on associated with directors like Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. And true, the music retains its robust, guitar-based energy while the movie “opens out” the play in ways that seem sensible, if banal. And yet the film feels anachronistic, and not just because it works too hard to please the famous Rentheads, those super-dedicated fans who not only know all the lyrics, but also wait on line for days to see the show live (multiple times) and/or identify with specific characters.
Ten years ago, Larson’s concept seemed daringly simple and politically cogent. Based on Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent focused on the resilience of a new generation of oppressed “types,” assorted victims of prejudice, poverty, addiction, and disease. They sang and occasionally danced, very earnestly, about their fleeting lives as unemployed artists and rapturous lovers. Featuring six of the original eight stage cast members (10 years older, now), the film begins with the stagey, Chorus Line-ish “Seasons of Love,” the principals lined up in separate spotlights, even as they belt rhapsodically about their connections, their shared “measures” for lives well lived (the primary one being the age-old favorite, “love”).
From here, following two minutes of “footage” shot by aspiring filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp), the film cuts to “the street,” where Mark rides his bike in traffic and frets about the blurring of boundaries between “real life” and fiction. It’s a self-knowing introduction, as the song, “Rent,” names its own dilemma, how to make melodrama and artifice compelling when experience has turned so sensational and illusory? Set in the East Village during 1989, the movie’s primary location is the giant loft shared by Mark and Roger (Adam Pascal), both unable to make rent and so, tempted by former roommate Benny (Taye Diggs) and current “yuppie scum” landlord to cut a deal by convincing performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel) to cease her public protests against Benny’s developer employer/father-in-law (the wealthy white wife remains unseen).
Depressed because he never wrote the “one song” by which he might be remembered, Roger appears in brief flashbacks with bleached ‘80s hair and a junkie girlfriend, as he laments his current HIV+ status. Two minutes later, he’s approached by lovely downstairs neighbor Mimi (Rosario Dawson), also a junkie, whose rendition of “Light My Candle” makes Roger think twice: he’s been clean for years, the last girlfriend killed herself, and besides, he doesn’t know she’s positive too. As if to fulfill a one-from-every-food-group variety, the players are rounded out by lesbian lawyer/Maureen’s new squeeze Joanne (Tracie Thoms, whose voice, especially during their duet, “Take Me or Leave Me,” rises beyond this occasion), and the gay boys—ex-professor/homeless Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin, all big smiles and bursting heart) and his newfound romantic object, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia).
In fact, Tom and Angel meet under dismal but somehow fated circumstances, as the former is mugged and beat down in an alley and Angel, sitting on a nearby corner playing her giant pickle bucket for coins, takes him home (where that is remains unclear). Their love is true, though, so this bit of plotty artifice serves as a means to an end: adorable drag queen Angel will become the emblem of devotion and generosity for everyone else, despite and because of her stereotypical limits (a function of her name and her utter sweetness).
Rent is beset by that unfortunate notion that exposition is well suited to lyrical expression—and so the performers sing their stories and desires, framed by cheesy hooks, sing-talking them when the language just becomes too cumbersome for crooning. (This device, too familiar from Andrew Lloyd Webber works, is either wearying or rousing, depending on your tolerance level.). Equally clunky is the film’s resolute refusal to deal with transitions: even though characters travel in outdoor spaces and appear to need time to get from one location to another, the film forgoes logic, only plunking from scene to scene (number to number) by unsmoothed transitions (end of song, fade out).
Still, Rent does offer up real ideas that still resonate in the current implacable class hierarchy. Everyone here is concerned with property—intellectual, amorous, and geographic—and no one seems able to work for money, save for Mimi (whose employment as an exotic dancer down at the Cat Scratch Club provides for a Guys and Dolls-y number, marked by sultry and impressive splits, girl-on-girl action, and emphasis on Mimi’s loneliness). And so, Mark takes a job with the “sleazy” tv tab show Buzzline (working for Sarah Silverman, who extols his footage as “fresh” and “edgy”) in order to pay, you know, rent.
The point of Mark’s foray into “corporate America” is as heavy-handed as it sounds, but it does allow him to look after his coupled-off friends. Mark’s own singleness makes this nice Jewish boy stand out, as, aside from his status as Maureen’s ex, has no love object on the horizon—unless you count the bracing number he does with Joanne, “Tango: Maureen,” in which they detail the emotional costs of loving this relentlessly flirtatious beauty, or even more frustratingly, his friendship with Roger, whose temporary departure (to that mecca of something, San Diego) and return sets up what seems the passionate consummation of their relationship. The boys embrace on a rooftop with cameras circling as they sing “What You Own”: “When you’re living in America / At the end of the millennium, / You’re what you own.”
While the reference to the end of the millennium—in 1990—suggests a certain looking forward, Rent does make clear that material culture is vibrant, insistent, and oppressive, no matter whether you own a piece of it or rent. The show holds out that “love” counters this drive to possess. Even if that’s not precisely true, even if “Everything is rent,” the show’s big-booming, corny overstatement is, at least occasionally, hard to resist.