I saw the film version of Rent in 2005, nine years after the magical experience at New York Theatre Workshop. I hated it. Maybe not hated. Strongly disliked. The primary problem, I thought, was that too long had passed before the film got made. The original cast was starting to look a little long in the tooth, and that fact was driven home by the fresh additions of Tracie Thoms (more on her later) and Rosario Dawson (who should be in, if not all movies, then most).
The secondary problem, I thought, was a question of tone and approach: who was this movie for? The obvious audience was the army of Rentheads (a category within which I think I have to, reluctantly, include myself), but they/we already know the show backwards and forwards. The film made a number of structural changes to the piece, including cutting a bunch of songs, changing details, and disrupting the overall flow that the had been mastered in the musical. This wasn’t the same piece of art that folks knew from the stage and the stereo. At the same time, the film’s changes didn’t really take the piece in exciting new directions; it was hard to imagine someone who wasn’t already a fan of (or at least familiar with) the musical falling in love with the film.
My final problem with the movie was seemingly insignificant but straight to the heart of the matter: they shot lots of it in California. Some exteriors were shot in NYC, but the overall feel still wasn’t right. This was a New York show. This was a show about a very specific place and time–you couldn’t go back to the time, but you could certainly have revisited the place. New York City should have made this movie happen in New York City.
All that said, there are moments.
Tracie Thoms is kind of perfect as Joanne, both here and onstage (more on that in a few days). There’s something young and exciting about her–she’s not Fredi Walker, who had a great voice and presence as well, but she’s a great fit. The great songs still pop, for the most part (start with the following video and follow the trail on youtube; I’m not sure if this version of “Tango: Maureen” is kind of cool or woefully misguided):
All in all, the sad part of the movie is that it’s not what it could have been. The original film rumors started in 2001 with the idea that Spike Lee was going to be at the helm (“shooting down the street”), and I remember talk that Justin Timberlake was going to star at one point (as Roger, I assume–not exactly a snug fit). I’m not sure either of these celebs (or any celebs) would have been able to pull it off. Even by 2001, the moment to make the movie had kind of passed.
Tomorrow…I fall back in love with the show.