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.