Mention the name Chris Columbus to any 'Rent' fan and they'll likely respond with a disgruntled frown and a few choice words (or epithets). The man responsible for bringing Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Broadway musical to the screen isn't very popular among the show's admiring throng. To say Columbus screwed up 'Rent' is overstating the case – he wisely reassembled almost all of the original New York cast – but his family-friendly approach and misguided creative decisions sucked much of the power and passion out of this bold, deeply moving work. My first exposure to 'Rent' was through Columbus' 2005 film, which I liked well enough, but it wasn't until I saw 'Rent' on Broadway the following summer that I truly understood how Larson's symbiotic blend of story and music inspired and captivated so many. To watch 'Rent' live is to live it along with the characters, and it's an intense, visceral experience few other musicals can match.
When 'Rent' closed amid much hoopla last September after a dozen years on Broadway, fans collectively feared Columbus' anemic film version would end up defining the show for all eternity. Well, you can stop your hand wringing, Rentheads (and anyone else who's been touched by or curious to see this musical phenomenon), such a horrible fate will never come to pass. With 16 cameras at his disposal, director Michael John Warren videotaped the show's final performance, and the result – 'Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway' – stands as one of the most electrifying entertainment experiences in recent memory. And in 1080p with Dolby TrueHD audio, it will simply blow you away.
There's nothing like live theater – let's make that very clear – but this video production comes closer to capturing its elusive, magical qualities than anything I've previously seen. 'Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway' is better than a front row seat; Warren's cameras put viewers on stage with the actors, heightening the intimacy, immediacy, and passionate pull of Larson's piece. The raw emotions of love, anger, and despair rage more palpably thanks to the clarity of high definition, and the crystalline audio puts the backstage band square in our living room. Both elements blur the boundaries between the stage and audience, and make this incarnation of 'Rent' the next best thing to experiencing it communally in a theater.
'Rent' ushered in a new era of realism in the musical milieu, brashly and frankly tackling such heretofore taboo topics as AIDS, drug addiction, and homosexuality within a rock-'n'-roll framework. Centering on a close-knit group of starving artists in the Lower Manhattan slums who celebrate love, confront fear, and seek truth in the face of terminal disease and poverty, 'Rent' transforms Puccini's classic opera, 'La Bohème,' into a contemporary rock opera with an uplifting message. Many of the characters must cope with a dire, irreversible fate, but learn to accept it and appreciate each beautiful moment and special relationship life gives them. "No Day But Today" is their collective anthem, and they preach it with affecting fervor and sincerity. On the surface, the message may sound trite, even sappy, but when wrapped up in a score that features such masterworks as Light My Candle, Out Tonight, What You Own, La Vie Bohème, and the iconic Seasons of Love, it resonates with an honest simplicity that's tough to shake – especially when one factors in the tragic irony that Larson, who was so in tune with this viewpoint and so fervently attached to his doomed characters, never lived to see his show open, let alone achieve its monumental critical and popular success. The composer of 'Rent' died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 38 the night before the show's off-Broadway premiere.
Larson's death adds an extra element of pathos, inspiration, and spirituality to 'Rent,' but it's his music that makes it soar. A mélange of styles from rap and reggae to pop and techno mirrors the characters' racial and sexual diversity, while providing catchy melodies, tight harmonies, and resonating lyrics that nail the emotions of the moment. While it would have been nice if the show's original cast could have reunited for this event (many of them – including Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, and Daphne Rubin-Vega – march onstage during the final curtain call), the producers have assembled a company that puts its own indelible stamp on the material. Do we miss Adam Pascal as Roger and Idina Menzel as Maureen? Of course. But it doesn't take long for these largely unknown performers (the exception being Tracie Thoms, who also played Joanne in the film version) to inhabit these familiar characters and make them their own.
My only mild complaint about the entire enterprise is that Warren relies too heavily on the close-up. By all means, it's wonderful to savor the actors' nuances and absorb their intensity (and, boy, do they look great in high-def), but at times we lose the vital theatrical perspective this production is supposed to preserve. Much of the time the entire stage is in use, but we only see a finite cross section, which lends the video a movie-like feel. More frequent wide establishing shots would allow us to more fully drink in the entire tableau and get a better sense of setting.Such a minor quibble, however, can't dampen my enthusiasm for this disc. Broadway productions are rarely, if ever, filmed, so to have this historical document of a Tony Award-winning show available to replay again and again is more than a treat; it's a privilege. And unless you'd like to occasionally recall the excellent work of Rapp, Pascal, Martin, and Menzel in their original roles, go ahead and say "Goodbye, Columbus" to your old 'Rent' DVD and/or Blu-ray. 'Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway' – without question – is the version to own, and share with fellow fans and those unfamiliar with Larson's tour de force. Just like live theater, it's an experience you won't soon forget.
'Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway' was shot on videotape, so the image exhibits a vibrant, crisp look that really pops on big-screen, high-def displays. The drab, industrial set fades into the background, so there's little to distract us from the actors, and against the predominant blackness their facial features and costumes are often striking. The racially diverse cast sports a wide variety of fleshtones, but they're all natural and stable, with theatrical makeup never adding any artificial accents. Sweat and tears are clearly visible, and when Mimi shakes out her hair during Out Tonight, the explosion of glitter seems to burst through the screen.
Black levels are dense, and the theatrical lighting creates gorgeous contrast. Even in dim scenes (such as Light My Candle), fine details are visible. Colors are bright and vivid, but never look pushed, and fabric textures are very discernible. All this clarity adds force to the emotional gut punches 'Rent' often throws and rivets our eyes to the screen. This is truly top-notch stuff that will thrill both the musical's fans and serious videophiles.
Part of me wishes the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio was more explosive, but it accurately represents the capabilities of the show's small band and provides clean, dynamic, well-modulated sound. Again, we're watching a live theatrical performance, not something that's been recorded and remixed and enhanced, and considering the scenario's limitations, this track pumps out a strong yet nuanced mix. Vocals are well prioritized, so the lyrics remain understandable even during such frenetic numbers as La Vie Bohème, and stereo separation across the front speakers can be deliciously distinct, as in Roger's opening solo, One Song Glory. The surrounds are mostly reserved for applause, but kick in occasionally when the phone rings and voicemail messages are left. Subtle use also can be detected during most musical numbers, and helps the track produce a nice immersive feel. Unfortunately, bass frequencies don't dig quite deep enough to meet the needs of a rock musical, but overall, this track gives us all we could ask for and serves 'Rent' well.
Rentheads will devour these well-produced extras, but others may find a bit too much repetition in the various featurettes. Still, it's a nice package that honors Larson's musical and its lasting impact.
'Rent' fans, rejoice! 'Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway' presents this legendary musical the way it should always be seen – on stage in all its gritty, grimy glory. The top-notch cast rivals the beloved originals, and superb video and audio make this powerful show more immediate and affecting than ever before. A solid selection of featurettes completes this must-own package, which stunningly captures the energy, excitement, and emotion of live theater. Highly recommended.