In the film adaptation of the musical Rent, bohemian cynicism of post-modern ideologies about economic development and traditional American values clash with the realities of poverty, addiction, disease, and disenfranchisement. This film, produced by Chris Columbus is the realization of the brilliance behind Jonathan Larson’s musical. We begin at the apartment of Mark and Roger, aspiring artists whose dreams take a back seat to the reality of the fact that life’s experiences haven’t prepared them for the struggles that are set to bring out the best in them.
Their old friend Benny, is in a fight with Maureen over his plan to build Cyberland; which would allow him to use the neighborhood to create films, though it would also disrupt the artists’ chaotic lives as well as displace hundreds of homeless individuals who would have no other place to go. He is also willing to evict Mark and Roger from their apartment in order to get this accomplished, yet is willing to call it off, and allow them to live there rent free if they interfere with Maureen’s protest; though their doing so conflicts with their hippie values.
Rent is not entirely original in the fact that in the sixties and seventies the same independent spirit of social commentary that infected Hollywood had also taken form in Broadway in the form of such products as Jesus Christ Superstar, Company, Fame and Hair. Yet while Broadway may have adopted Norman Lear’s aesthetic, it wasn’t enough to convince America’s youth to visit Broadway, and Jonathan, who felt that the gulf between the high society and the disenfranchised needed to dissapear, found a way to write a play that had more of a universal appeal than most. Ironically, he found it through interpreting La Boheme.
While the characters in the play not only mirror many of the individuals he knew, the circumstances of which were also derivative of his own experiences, there must be no better plot device than the tragedies of one’s own life, and it is difficult to imagine the creation of Rent, absent of the problems that were the catalyst behind Jonathan having written it to begin with.
This musical has everything from a fresh look at alternative lifestyles, to heroin addicts, a stripper, and an amateur filmmaker chronicling HIV patients finding peace as they struggle to deal with the existential changes in their life. But does it really cover new ground or it just a grittier look at life on the East Side? Jonathan adds a depth and realism to his characters that you don’t find in most other musicals, in a similar fashion to his early work; and he doesn’t romanticize it’s protagonists; Benny had the same ambitions as the artists he is fighting against at one time, yet simply gave that lifestyle up for the trappings of corporate America, Maureen, while fighting the good fight, is a manipulative individual who wants to be accepted for her shortcomings, but can her lover overlook her previous indiscretions and move forward with their life together?
This film does not offer any quick solutions or answers to life’s problems, but does a great job at portraying them to us. It does not hurt that its excellent music score eases the transition between scenes in the process. In the end we’re back where we started, Mimi and Roger are back together, Mark gives up his journalism job (acquired disingenuously) to finish the film that was in his heart, and while Angel has passed through to the other side they are closer than they ever have been.
Yet this is the part where the only closure arrives in the fact that everyone is happy and all will live happily ever after. What happened with Benny’s plans to demolish the neighborhood? How did Maureen and her lover’s relationship end up? Does any of the cast ever end up employed, or do they continue their day to day hustle? At the end of the day none of that matters, and Jonathan, expertly, shows the bohemian lifestyle for the true continuum that it often is. Yet is it better to live on the edge and take chances, or to live a normal lifestyle and enjoy the security blanket afforded to us? That is the rhetorical question of which anchors the creative genius that is behind this musical.