Review Date: 12.6.05
Rent, the Broadway musical that ran about a decade ago, has been made into a movie directed by Chris Columbus and is now playing in area theaters. The basic storyline is adapted from Henri Murger's 19th century serial Scènes de la vie Bohème (set in the Latin quarter of Paris), text for the Puccini opera La vie bohème. Baz Luhrmann did a 1950s setting version of the opera, which ran on Broadway after Rent opened. The original musical got rid of most of Puccini except for some of Musetta's waltz, which we also hear in this filmic version, flagged pretty explicitly as that familiar opera tune. The film is quite faithful to the musical, with most of the cast members, a lot of the choreography, props, and costumes still the same, and it is set in the East Village in 1989-90. Rosario Dawson, instead of Daphne Rubin-Vega, plays Mimi, and she is, as the Village Voice snidely put it, "the world's hottest heroin addict with AIDS." It's true, the movie/musical in its 2005 version stretches plausibility on many counts. First of all, it makes the East Village look wondrously clean, festive, polished somehow, and though it's not inaccurately re-created, it's somehow so much cleaner. And, of course, looks nothing like Clinton Street now, since there are no squatters (no one can afford to live there), and limos and hummers cruise the tiny streets to empty chic passengers out into the bar and 5-star restaurant filled neighborhoods of the East Village. Even Alphabet city, where the musical Rent takes place, can no longer claim to be the center of the Bohemian life in New York Coty. Try Brooklyn and, by now, you may even have to go to Queens. Giuliani got rid of the squatters and the homeless, cleared the way for the unconscionable super-gentrification of lower Manhattan where even the middle to upper-middle class is hard pressed to find affordable housing. There are still pockets, but these may even be too squalid for the college-aged mostly middle class kids who flocked there back when to live a different kind of life.
But enough bad-mouthing because, I admit it, I loved the movie. I love the songs and I love the verve that musicals have. And this one seems to be all about certain kinds of hopes that even the post- post-sixties generation X had for alternative living and loving. It makes you nostalgic for the very possibility of Bohemia-can it still exist? Where, and how? If there's something unfortunate about that nostalgia, it would have to be that it seems to take us back to a time when life on the edge was precious and cast a shimmer on things-and that what seems to be making everything so precious is that 1) people are hungry and cold; and 2) many people have AIDS and will be dying soon. I'd rather the emphasis had been, as it seems to have been at least more in the musical, on the activist and artistic responses to this situation than on the hardships that generated it. But that may be what happens with distance. The same demographic's look back from 2005 seems to have forgotten that it was awful to be hungry and that having so many of your friends die, attending funerals every other day, not finding or being able to afford the drugs that might help, all this tore people apart, made them angry, bitter, hurt, and inspired their fight for a better world. We don't see so much of that in the movie.
Still, there's a great deal that is inspiring: the life support group that crafts an unsentimental and non-new age language for attempting to live conscientiously and fully in the present in the face of a radically uncertain future, the fierce and frightened bid for love made by two people whose days are numbered by accidents of their past, the ideal and heavily idealized couple who anchors the story's truths in a definition of love that's about sheltering, covering, struggling together. Beautiful actors with splendid voices, keeping the thought of Bohemia alive, now when it seems the only alternatives are selling out or starving. Flawed, yes, but moving too. Go see it.
Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.