NO DAY BUT TODAY? There is much to admire about the film adaptation of Rent -- the performances are all solid, especially Jesse L. Martin as Tom Collins, and some of the numbers really benefit from being opened up on screen ("Rent", "La Vie Boheme"). If you don't get misty during the funeral scene, you don't have a soul.
But the film as a whole didn't engage me and the culprit, I think, is a too-faithful adaptation. Rent 2005 failed to address the changes in the world between the late 1980s and now, making a work that's supposed to feel urgent into a dated period piece.
Let's be blunt: this is not a society which treats domestic AIDS as a crisis anymore, despite the statistics, but the fates of those who suffer from it are no longer controversial within our political discourse. When senators like Rick Santorum are among the leaders of the fight for AIDS funding for Africa, we are in very different times from a show in which the entire cast defiantly stops a song to shout "Actual Reality -- ACT UP -- Fight AIDS!"
(Look, I understand -- if you pull the line about ACT UP, then you've got a whole other mess on your hands -- but when was the last time you saw a Silence = Death t-shirt?)
And AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, thank God.
So the question is, then, how do you persuade an audience in 2005 that our protagonists are doomed martyrs at the edge of society? And I think you just need to add in more context here. Or something. Because what you can get away with on Broadway in 2005, given the visceral impact of having the performers right in front of you, just doesn't automatically work as well mediated through a projection screen.
There are minor issues too regarding fidelity in translation: if you've seen the original work, you understand coming into Maureen's big number that she's N-V-T-S nuts and her big production is a parody of bad performance art. But in 2005, who even remembers what performance art is -- and I don't think the Tango Maureen number gives enough framing to let you know that you're supposed to view her number as ridiculous. (That said, Idina Menzel does a fantastic job from that point forward conveying her character's instability.)
And another thing, which I'll credit Jen for spotting: much is made of Mark's fear of "selling out", that it would be bad for him to, y'know, Get A Job and not be True To His Art. And for those of us who remember the "should Band [X] sign with a major label?" debates of the late 1980s and especially the post-Nirvana early 1990s, well, we can put it in context. But as Jen points out, hip hop music has totally subverted that argument -- there now is nothing ignoble about coming up from the streets and making it big; selling out and entrepeneurialism are heroic (paging Thomas Frank!)
I'm sure there was a real fear of tinkering with Larson's text, given the whole backstory. But something probably had to be done -- maybe, just letting a new cast work with the material, or using some kind of framing device to put us back in the late-1980s mindset again, one in which those suffering with AIDS were just as much outcasts as those stricken with tuberculosis in La Boheme.
We know that Angels in America was remade recently for HBO, and it was brilliant. But Rent didn't work. Or did it, and am I just too hard on it?