In virtually every musical, the characters break into song to express their inner selves. But in Rent, the movie version of Jonathan Larson’s exuberant pop-rock tribute to the squalid lower Manhattan bohemia of the late 1980s, the characters have almost no outer selves. When they sing, their catchy epiphanies of deep-dish feeling are all there is to them. The movie is literally a series of showstoppers, unified by the impulse to turn life, at its scruffiest, into theater — into a rhapsody of the everyday.
Rent doesn’t look like the sort of musical that would age well. A reflection of the era when AIDS was still a death sentence, it was, like Hair, a contradiction on stage: an adrenalized crowd-pleaser that romanticized the East Village culture of drag queens, drug addicts, holier-than-thou indie filmmakers, and other misfits by doing something they all would have hated — making them safe for mainstream audiences. When Rent debuted on Broadway in 1996, the hipster-squatter vitality the show celebrated was being steamrolled by Giuliani-ization, and my reaction was just as contradictory: I melted at the gorgeous descending cascade of a song like ”Seasons of Love,” yet the actors all blended into one another. They were a heartbeat away from the look-at-me ”creative” brats in Fame.
All of which makes Rent, as a movie, a joyful surprise. The director, Chris Columbus, usually a meister of clunk (he made the first two Harry Potter films and Home Alone), has opened up the show, turning it into a far more varied and flowing entertainment. He lets his camera glide through the East Village backlot sets, luring us to the intimate center of what his singer-actors are expressing. They don’t just break into song — they burst into who they are. What was sometimes oppressive on stage — all that righteous passion! — is lightened and liberated in the movie, which starts in the beat-up old loft shared by Mark (Anthony Rapp), the preppy filmmaker, and Roger (Adam Pascal), the failed rocker, and then moves out to the crumbling neighborhood, where no setting — a graffitied subway car, an HIV-positive therapy group — proves too unlikely for a song.
The plot is little more than a fragmentary series of hookups, but the actors, all but two of whom originated the roles on stage, make their presence felt. As Angel, the HIV-positive drag queen, Wilson Jermaine Heredia has a feline delicacy that erupts into chorus-line jazziness, and Idina Menzel, as Maureen the temptress performance artist, is a lioness in leather pants. Her duet with Tracie Thoms as Joanne, her jealous lover, is a high point, and so is Jesse L. Martin’s wistful rendition of ”Santa Fe.” As Mimi the exotic dancer, Rosario Dawson does ”Out Tonight” with a howl that rivals Warren Zevon’s. Time has been kind to the impoverished but sexy middle-class dropouts of Rent, who no longer come off as Broadway-mall versions of the last urban renegades in America. As they float through this dreamy soap operetta, what shines through is the beauty of Larson’s bohemia: not to be a rebel but, simply, to be alive.