It is a tragic irony that Jonathan Larson would die of an aortic aneurysm the night before his only produced musical, 'Rent,' would make its debut off-Broadway. Inspired by Giacomo Puccini's famous opera "La Boheme," 'Rent' is set in pre-9/11, post-Reagan-era New York circa 1990, and presents a mosaic of AIDS-afflicted Lower East Side bohemians, living (and dying) as the world turned a blind eye to their realities. But while Larson himself would not live to see it, the world did not turn a blind eye to 'Rent' -- in fact, his creation became a cultural phenomenon, eventually storming Broadway where over a decade later it remains an institution. In telling a story of society's forgotten, Larson made the world remember them, and 'Rent' arguably still stands as the form's most defining statement on AIDS.
Inevitably, the Broadway success of 'Rent' led to speculation of a movie version, and indeed, development began almost immediately after the show's first glowing reviews. Numerous studios and filmmakers (including Mike Nichols and Spike Lee) were attached to the project at various points, but as the years ticked on and on, it seemed more and more likely that 'Rent' was never going to make it to the big screen. That all changed in 2004 when Sony announced that 'Rent' was finally happening -- but with a most unlikely director on board. When it hit the trades that Chris Columbus (yes, that Chris Columbus, of 'Mrs. Doubtfire,' 'Home Alone' and 'Harry Potter' fame) would be bringing the most beloved musical of the past twenty years to Hollywood, jaws dropped. How could the guy who helmed some of the most commercial franchises in history be put in charge of a musical that was a thinly-disguised allegory for the decimation of bohemian culture by some of the very same corporate forces Columbus had helped to build throughout his entire career? It seemed akin to hiring Marilyn Manson to direct 'The Care Bears Movie.'
In the end, it would seem that Columbus was neither the best nor the worst choice of director to tackle 'Rent.' Though his passion for the material is obvious, his good intentions ultimately fail to overcome his banal, commercial instincts. 'Rent' is not the disaster it could have been -- it certainly hasn't been Disney-fied to the point of castration -- but it still lacks any real hint of an edge.
The film itself is more or less faithful to its source, at least in terms of retaining its milieu, basic set of characters and overall story arc (as he showed with his two 'Harry Potter' films, Columbus is nothing if not slavish in his devotion to the original text). It also retains most of Larson's musical compositions. Unfortunately, these choices seem to only doom 'Rent' to the dustbin of the outdated. The play may be only eleven years old, but in pop culture terms, that might as well be one hundred and fifty -- the stabs at early '90s-era Pearl Jam hard rock and hip-hop-lite accents are wrapped up in typical Broadway artifice, and the results make 'High School Musical' seem hip. It's not that there aren't some great songs here (particularly the memorable "Seasons of Love," easily the strongest tune in the show), but they just don't sound contemporary.
Compounding the film's problems is Columbus' decision to cast almost all of the original Broadway cast in the same roles. They are a talented bunch, but the lengthy development of the movie version left each of them about ten years too old for their parts. To be fair, that worked for the movie version of 'Grease,' but that was a show about nostalgia, and it added to the pastiche that it was a bunch of thirty-year-olds playing teenagers. But for a story like 'Rent,' the vigors of youth are essential to adequately convey the full gravity of the ravages of AIDS have taken on the community, making the approach feel not just wrong-headed, but false. It's telling that one of the only two new additions to the main cast, Rosario Dawson (taking over as Mimi the junkie, a role originated on stage by Daphne Rubin-Vega) is also the only one who is able truly command the screen and create a memorable, undeniable character. Dawson's freshness is exactly what's lacking in the other performances.
'Rent' is not a terrible film by any means. It's entertaining, and Columbus does seem emboldened by a passion lacking in most of his other films. He doesn't waste a single shot, and he certainly doesn't water down the more biting social criticisms inherent in Larson's original text. But despite the director's best efforts, it just isn't enough. 'Rent' just doesn't contain that true spark of inspiration or relevancy needed to make it a truly classic, iconic movie musical.
'Rent' comes to Blu-ray in a smashing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, accurately framed at the original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. As impressed as I was with the previous DVD of only two years ago, this next-gen edition is a clear upgrade -- in fact, despite its lack of big-ticket action and explosions, this transfer pretty dang close to reference-quality.
A very well-conceived film visually, 'Rent' nicely balances the realism of its urban milieu with more stylized theatrical elements. Colors pop and sometimes even stun (the nightclub scenes with Rosario Dawson and the Idina Menzel performance art sequence, are particularly strong), with excellent saturation and smoothness. This contrasts with some of the more chilly outdoor scenes, which are a bit bloomy, but still boast strong detail and depth. And typical of a recent release ('Rent' is only two years old), the source is in pristine shape, with no blemishes and rock solid black levels.
Are there any problems with this transfer? Only very minor ones. Most noticeable are a few moments of spotty grain and some very slight noise. Also, outdoor scenes tend to suffer a bit from flattened mid-range and a hint of softness. None of these are major defects, however, and it's hard to imagine any "Renthead" being disappointed this one.
When Sony first released 'Rent' on standard-def DVD back in early 2006, its soundtrack was a shocking disappointment. Most of the lyrics were muddled, the songs never popped in the mix, and the surrounds were surprisingly lifeless. Clearly hoping to rev things up with this Blu-ray, Sony offers up uncompressed PCM and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround options (both 48kHz/16-bit), and although neither fully rights all past wrongs, high-res audio tracks are a clear improvement over the previous DVD.
The biggest relief on both the PCM and TrueHD mixes is that the lyrics are finally prominent. Dynamics sound more forceful and better attenuated, with clear distinction between sonic elements of the music and warmer vocals. Low bass is also clearly superior -- in a quick compare with the old DVD, the opening number "Seasons of Love" boasts noticeably stronger and tighter response from the subwoofer. General dialogue scenes are also better rendered, with most of the volume balance issues I had with the previous DVD corrected.
Unfortunately, even the healthy boost of high-res audio can't overcome the film's anemic sound design when it comes to the surrounds. There just isn't enough activity in the rears to create any sense of sustained or even sporadic atmosphere. I kept leaning in, right as a new song was about to burst forth, waiting for the "wall of sound" to kick in, but was always left disappointed. It's a particular shame, because in all other respects, 'Rent' sounds great.
The limited number of bulletpoints on the box art for 'Rent' may not look like much at first glance, but the commentary and documentary materials included here are arguably superior to the film itself -- in fact, this is the rare release that's almost worth buying just for the bonus features. (Sadly, Sony hasn't bothered to upgrade any of them to full 1080 video -- the studio really needs to start getting with the program and bumping up these old ports for the high-def age.)
After nearly a decade in gestation, 'Rent' finally arrived in theaters in 2005 with a thud. The film itself isn't awful -- it just doesn't rank as a truly transcendent, iconic movie musical. This Blu-ray is quite a fine package, boasting a great transfer, good soundtrack and terrific extras. Still, unless you're a huge fan of the film, the title says it all -- this one's best relegated to a 'Rent' at the video store.