Friday, March 24, 2006

DVD Review: Rent

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I first heard about “Rent”, the stage production, way back in 1995 while I was studying in the US. It was somewhat of a phenomenon back them and it piqued my interest being that I’m a big fan of stage musicals (I know … OGT alert). Being that I was studying way up north in Wisconsin at the time, the odds of me actually getting to see the show (or any show on Broadway for that matter) was as good as a snowball surviving in hell. Needless to say that I didn’t get to see it but I keep hearing good things about the show. Once in a while another comment would come up about so and so performing in “Rent” and my curiosity radar gets a ping again about this show. Unlike Webber’s shows that seems to be more popular locally, there was fairly little information about shows like “Hair” and “Rent” here.

I have to admit that I had to think twice before purchasing my copy of the “Rent” DVD. Having getting burnt before with sub par film adaptation of stage productions (think “Phantom of the Opera” and “Evita”), I didn’t know if I would like this big screen adaptation of “Rent”. It didn’t have a lot of recognizable names (at least to me) in the cast and other that the very basic awareness of the story I didn’t really know what to expect from it. The critics reviews available online about the initial theatrical run of this film was not exactly encouraging but there were a few that were passionately positive about it nevertheless. Being that purchasing these original DVDs are still considered a luxury purchase for me, buying the “Rent” DVD was one that I took at a risk hoping that I would eventually like the movie.

“Rent” is an urban based rock musical written by Jonathan Larson that tells the story of a group of young people living in the fringe of society in a bleak Lower East Village of Manhattan circa late 1980’s. The audience follows the story through the lives of a large ensemble cast which includes aspiring songwriter Roger (Adam Pascal); Roger's roommate and wannabe filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp); computer genius Tom (Jessie L. Martin); Tom's cross-dressing lover Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia); and Benny (Taye Diggs), who betrayed his friends when he married their landlord's daughter and is now threatening the group with eviction from their seedy loft apartments. Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel) who dumped him for lawyer Joanne (Tracie Thoms) and Roger's downstairs neighbor Mimi (Rosario Dawson) rounds up the remaining cast all of whose narrative are driven by the songs of this musical.

Broadly adapting Puccini’s “La Boheme”, Larson updates the play to a modern setting with Roger the songwriter replacing Rodolfo, the poet, Mark the wannabe filmmaker standing in for Marcello, the painter and Benny replaces Benoit the landlord trying to evict them. Mimi in “La Boheme” is similarly updated from being a seamstress with tuberculosis to an exotic dancer with AIDS. The musical's subject matter and location of AIDS and the bleak Lower East Village of Manhattan may have changed dramatically since the time when this stage production was originally staged but it still resounds loudly especially to those who lived through those dark times. The underlying theme that “Rent” presents remains relevant today: young people trying to figure out their place in a world they don't necessarily respect, or want to be a part of.

In adapting the stage production to film, director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter 1) stayed true to the original material for the most part. Several songs in the original were converted into smart and funny dialogue sequences between the musical sequences. Being a rock opera, the musical sequences are the meat and potatoes of this film. I would have to say that I was thrilled to watch almost all of them performed by this energetic and passionate cast with the exception of a very select few that seemed to come across as a bit flat on film. With almost 26 musical numbers through out the movie, it was hard for me to pick favorites but I have to single out "Light My Candle" - Roger & Mimi, "Will I" - Steve, Gordon & Cast, "Take Me Or Leave Me" - Maureen & Joanne, "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" - Collins, Joanne & Cast and "Finale B" - Cast of RENT as the songs that stayed with me at the end of the first viewing. After viewing the DVD at least 7 times to date, I have to say that I beginning to love every one of the songs (with the exception of "Over The Moon" - Maureen which is a bit too weird for me to get into) and can’t wait to get the original soundtrack CD of the movie.

It goes without saying that the cast of “Rent” the movie is the best possible cast Chris Columbus could ask for as 6 or the 8 original stage cast returned 10 years later to reprise them. These were the 6 people who starred in the first production of “Rent” and have indelibly left their mark on how the character should be. It was fortunate for them that they were cast in the original stage production at such a young age that they don’t seem to have aged too much for their film character reprise. The two newcomers to the group, Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Tracie Thoms as Joanne, fitted so well with the rest of the cast that they looked as if they have been doing it for as long as the original cast did. I did some very basic comparison between their performance in the original stage production versus the movie, using the snippets of both the original stage recording and the original soundtrack, and thought that their performances on the film sounded much better that the former. All of the cast’s voices have a more matured quality to them compared to their pervious performance of the material and this makes for a more polished end product.

Disk 1 of the 2-disk DVD set hold the full feature with the standard language and subtitle options. I found that I prefer watching the movie with the subtitles on so that I could possibly memories some of the lyrics for my personal shower-time remix sessions. The picture and audio quality has no discernable points to dock as it was pretty clean and clear. A commentary track featuring Chris Columbus (director), Adam Pascal (Roger) and Anthony Rapp (Mark) is also include on Disk 1 of the DVD set. All three talked comfortably almost the whole time about their experiences in making the film. There were parts of the commentary in which they responded to the criticism made against the movie by some of the critics. While it was illuminating to hear them respond to the critics, I thought that the responses were too flippant to what was essentially valid criticism on what was happening on screen. Their comments made them seem a bit too defensive about their work which is actually good without having to rationalize it. Other than that particular point, I found the commentary enjoyable to sit through and share the passion that they had with the material.

Disk 2 of the DVD set included a selection of delete scenes with optional commentaries by the director. Most of the scene were cut for pacing as well as to better mold the emotional content of the movie. Among the cut scenes were 2 fan-favorite musical numbers that were filmed but never made it in the final cut. The crown jewel of the 2nd disk however is the feature-length documentary about the writer, Jonathan Larson and the story of how “Rent” came to be. This crowd-pleasing, inspirational and tear-inducing documentary traces the journey of Larson from childhood to his lean days while creating “Rent”. His early struggles and his successes up to the point when “Rent” was finally realized are shared with the audience through interviews with the people linked closely to him. The audience will definitely be touched to find out that Larson died at such a young age on the eve when his greatest work was to be staged to the public. The documentary continues with how Larson’s death didn’t stop the show and how it be came such a hit even while everyone involved in it was still mourning their lost. The documentary concludes with a section about the making of the film version of “Rent” after 10 year of it’s successful run. This documentary, which is a totally joyful profile of Larson's dedication to his art, is a touching memorial not only to him but to the dreams he represents in everyone.

Fans of the “Rent” stage production are known as “Rent-Heads” which I now proudly to proclaim myself as one after watching the film on DVD. This 2-disk DVD set was one of those risky purchases that turned out to be better than I could ever dreamed of. The film was one that left a profound impression to me and now ranked in my all-time favorites list and I would have never get to know it if I didn’t buy this DVD set. A good transfer and fairly enjoyable commentary track adds to the enjoyment of owning this DVD but the brilliantly poignant documentary has to be the highlight of special features included in the DVD which makes the DVD set a worthy addition to any DVD library. All in all, it is a very easy DVD presentation to recommend to those who enjoy musicals.

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