I'm not a big fan of modern movie musicals. While I can explain the oh-so-subtle nuances of the Munchkins to a 6-year-old and warble neighbor-taxing selections from My Fair Lady, I've found recent productions like Moulin Rouge and Chicago to be soulless and smug. As a professional, however, one must approach a film like Rent, the screen adaptation of the mega-hit Broadway show, without negative bias. Imagine one's surprise when one nearly began blubbering during Rent's opening credits.
In my defense, though, Rent kicks off with what is arguably the show's best-known song, "Seasons of Love" ("Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes..."), a joyous number that actually caused a chunk of the screening audience to break into applause. Jonathan Larson is the composer of Rent, which opened off Broadway in the mid '90s and would go on to win Tonys and a Pulitzer. It continues to grace the New York stage, with almost 4,000 performances and more than $210 million under its belt. But Larson didn't live to see this success, or even the premiere, for that matter, having succumbed to an aortic aneurysm hours after final dress rehearsal.
Rent is based on Puccini's La Bohème and focuses on the romantic and artistic pursuits of East Village denizens at the close of the 1980s, with poverty, gentrification, and AIDS serving as backdrops to the story. The film opens with Tom (Jesse L. Martin, Law & Order) meeting and falling for Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) after getting pummeled by thugs. Filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp, who I almost didn't recognize from Dazed and Confused) and musician Roger (Adam Pascal) are Tom's roommates, and Mimi (Rosario Dawson, Sin City) is the dancer downstairs with an eye for Roger and a smack habit.
The neighborhood is preparing for a performance-art protest by Maureen (Idina Menzel), who is up in arms over Benny's (Taye Diggs, Chicago) cybervision for their stomping grounds. Maureen and Mark were once together, but now she's with Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a lawyer growing increasingly insecure over the very thing that drew her to Maureen. Rent follows this throng over the course of a year as they come together, break up, and make art, noise, and a difference.
Six out of the eight original cast members are on hand for Rent's movie debut, with Thoms and Dawson as the new kids on Avenue A. Dialogue meant to be projected live sometimes makes the actors seem a little wooden, but Dawson does some impressive crooning and hoofing in the juicy role of Mimi, and Martin, usually seen as a buttoned-up cop, puts his perpetually melancholy eyes to good use as the HIV-positive Tom, a man trying to brace himself for loss while continuing to live.
Rent enthusiasts (they're called Rentheads) understandably have some high expectations, meaning director Chris Columbus (most recently responsible for the first two Harry Potter movies) had better deliver. He liberates the action from the confines of the stage but doesn't harm the intimacy, and he allows actors who know the roles better than he does their freedom. At 135 minutes, Rent occasionally drags, but its infectious passion keeps it on track. It also gave one time to collect oneself.
Alain Resnais is one of the last living filmmakers who were part of the celebrated French New Wave, his most famous work being 1959's Hiroshima, Mon Amour. The latest offering from the octogenarian director is Not on the Lips, described in the spoken opening credits as "a movie with sound, speech, and song"... or a musical. Based on a 1925 operetta, Lips is an effervescent concoction that should in no way change your life, unless your very existence is impacted by gorgeous art direction, corny farce, and accomplished French actors having beaucoup fun.
Nominated for nine Césars (and winner of three, including costume design), Lips tells of the Goldbergian entanglements and misunderstandings that occur when a socialite named Gilberte neglects to mention to her haughty husband that she was married before, only to have the first husband show up at their home... as her husband's new business partner. Audrey Tautou (Amélie) is probably the face in the cast most recognizable to American audiences, and she plays Huguette, a young lady with a (naturally) secret crush on a poor artist who is infatuated with Gilberte.
There are probably subtexts or symbolism I should have picked up on, but I was terribly mesmerized by the fact that both the French lyrics and their English subtitles rhymed. How is this possible? I wonder if when they show Rent in France the French subtitles will rhyme. I feel a "research trip" coming on...
Rent (PG-13), directed by Chris Columbus, opens Wednesday, November 23, at Brockport Strand, Canandaigua Theatres, Culver Ridge 16, Eastview 13, Geneseo Theatres, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Tinseltown | Not on the Lips is showing Friday, November 25, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre, 8 p.m.