Saturday, April 08, 2006

See this film, then tell no one


The last week was a complete killer, but I have made it to the holidays. Woo! Is what I would be saying if I had the energy. Mostly I am just working up to having breakfast and thinking about leaving the house...

...Which brings me to Rent (it actually does). This is the musical, 'rock opera' if you like to sound ostentatious, that I have been obsessed with since I saw the original Broadway cast in 1997. By co-incidence, The Girl is also a fan of the show - but it's not a big co-incidence, because it's a musical and she does love those. Anyway. The film based on the show came out in the States a few months ago. It was delayed in coming over here, and now it's only around on very limited release. This has angered some fans of the show. But, honestly? I don't mind. I think I'd be somewhat annoyed if 'Rent' got too popular over here. Not only is it quite fun being one of only a small group of people who knows how great it is - but it's also so closely associated with my year in New York, and other times in my life, that it has come to represent important things for me. I don't much want to be sharing it with everyone else in the country.

Having done well in America, the film has had a couple of poor reviews here recently. I know exactly why that is. 'Rent' is a New York show - set in New York, about New York, capturing life and a local sub-culture at a particular moment of New York's history (the late 1990s, regardless of when the film is ostensibly set). That's why the stage show didn't do too well over here, even though it's still sold out on Broadway nearly ten years later - it doesn't transfer out of New York particularly well. By the same token, then, I wasn't sure it would work as a movie. It was also a bit of a worry that Chris Columbus, famous for ruining the first couple of Harry Potter films, was directing it. My concerns were unfounded, though.

'Rent' is an incredible story. It's about people who make the decision, every moment, to live rather than die. When I first saw the stage musical, I got that - from a different perspective from the one in the story, of course, but I got it. The film doesn't lose any of that concept's power. Some plot elements are re-ordered or taken out; some ideas are emphasised more than others; some characters and relationships are developed in slightly different directions from the way they are handled in the stage show. That's no bad thing. This isn't the show; it's an adaptation, and it succeeds as a movie. The actors, most of whom were in the original stage show cast, do an amazing job not only of transferring to different sets and a different kind of acting, but also to telling a subtly different story. Mimi's balcony dance becomes a performance about the character's entire, tragic yet triumphant life, as she dances off the strip club stage, down the city street and in through Roger's window - where he shows her a much less accepting perspective on living one day at a time. Mark looks very alone among all the happy couples at the Life Cafe, although he never seems to notice. Maureen is a shameless flirt who gives Joanne real reasons to doubt her fidelity, turing their relationship from one of comedy into something more thought-provoking that questions whether anyone really appreciates what they've got. 'Without You' becomes a sad contrast between the desperation of Collins, as he nurses Angel, and the stupidity of Mimi and Roger. Perhaps we even see a glimpse of Benny's other, more conflicted side, rather than leaving him just as the stereotypical sell-out villain of the piece. Most memorably for me, when Roger finally makes it out of the apartment, he joins the Life Support meeting in a poignant moment that is suddenly as much about accepting death as it is about living life - pointing out, even more than the show managed to, that the two are closely linked in this world where there's no day but today.

In the process of effectively developing these themes that fly by too briefly on the stage, though, some important plot elements have been lost. Angel's deep effect on all of the friends doesn't seem to resonate through the ending quite as much as it does in the show - which is a shame, because his influence should be at the centre of what happens next. April's choice of death over life isn't clearly shown - which is a problem for Roger's character development, and leaves out some important context for everything else, since it stands out against the affirming decisions made later by the other characters. Maureen's dramatic arrival has a fascinating lead-up in the stage show that is missing here. Setting it in 1989/1990 wasn't a particularly clever move. And there were a few moments where I thought what? and wondered whether the director was pushing his luck a bit.

But overall, it's fantastic. Columbus has brought out the universal relevance of a story that can too easily be dismissed as just being about people with AIDS in the '90s. The choice between living and dying is one that many of us make, maybe more often than even we realise. It could be that this story is not quite as culturally specific and bound to New York City as it first seems. Personally, I think it's about all of us. Just don't tell everyone that.

To people living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease...

No Day But Today

4 comments:

Aidan said...

Never saw Rent the stage-show, though it is good to see a recent revival in musicals being made into movies - following on from Chicago, The Producers, the (disappointingly-cast, butstill guiltily-enjoyable) Phantom Of The Opera, etc...

straighttalker05 said...

Hey - thanks for popping by.

Hope you've enjoyed holidays. God knows I needed them!

Clare said...

I have an American friend who is mad on RENT. She saw it several times in the Cinema and had it have been on at my local cinema I would like to have gone to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe I'll catch it if it comes out on DVD.

I'm looking forward to seeing the stage show WICKED in the Autumn.

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