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A Surprisingly Skillful, Faithful Stage-to-Screen Adaptation

Directed by Chris Columbus (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Mrs. Doubtfire), Rent is the highly anticipated screen adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson's 1996 Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning stage musical. Sadly, Larson died from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm less than a month before Rent received its Off-Broadway premiere. He was 36. Larson, however, left behind a celebratory, innovative (innovative in large part because it featured gay, bisexual, and transgender characters) rock opera centered on an East Village community of marginalized, unconventional artists, their friends, lovers, and the romantic and personal challenges (e.g., poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, illness, and AIDS) they face over the course of a tumultuous year in Manhattan's Lower East Side, circa 1989.

Inspired by Puccini's classic opera, "La Boheme", Rent opens on Christmas Eve, 1989. Roger (Adam Pascal), a reclusive musician/songwriter struggling to overcome a personal tragedy, and Mark (Anthony Rapp), a documentary filmmaker facing an uncertain future, are roommates. Most of the musical (and the film) takes place in and around Roger and Mark's loft, a converted warehouse space. Other key characters who are or who become intimately connected to Roger and Mark include Mimi (Rosario Dawson), their downstairs neighbor and an exotic dancer, Roger's ex-girlfriend, Maureen (Idina Menzel), a self-centered, pretentious performance artist, Maureen's new girlfriend, Joanne (Tracie Thoms), Thomas B. "Tom" Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a gay philosophy professor at New York University, Angel Shunard (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a flamboyant, transgender street drummer/performer, and Benjamin "Benny" Coffin III (Taye Diggs), a former roommate/friend who's gone upscale and married their landlord's daughter.

Rent's first half turns on Maureen's scheduled performance/protest (think a third- or fourth-rate Laurie Anderson) of Benny's redevelopment project and its aftermath, with the three couples, Roger and Mimi, Tom and Angel, and Maureen and Joanne, moving closer or farther apart as their conflicting desires, needs, and neuroses dictate (with Mark sadly the odd man out). Each character and each couple are offered the opportunity to overcome challenges that test tolerance, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness, with at least one character learning the hard lessons involved in caring for a dying companion, as well as recovering to find meaning in friendship, reciprocity, and community. On the surface, these life lessons may seem obvious, simple, or even simplistic (as is the "live for today" mantra the characters repeat). They are, but they come after prolonged struggle, doubts, and major reversals, which, in turn, make the life lessons both more palatable and more meaningful to the characters and the audience.

But we wouldn't be discussing Rent, let alone a stage-to-screen adaptation, without Jonathan Larson's songs and lyrics, all of which, with one or two minor exceptions, serve to advance the storylines, sharpen conflicts, reveal inner thoughts and feelings (or not), all while creating and sustaining a level of emotion and emotional attachment to the characters and their circumstances that few modern musicals have been able to achieve.

As expected from a Tony- and Pulitzer-prize winning musical, Rent has an overabundance of catchy, memorable songs, including: "Seasons of Love", "Rent", "One Song Glory" and "Light My Candle". Unsurprisingly, the original cast recording turned out to be one of the most commercially successful of its kind. The soundtrack for the film adaptation should be no different, thanks to most of the original cast members returning for the film, with the exception of Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, in the roles of Mimi and Joanne, respectively (both acquit themselves admirably in solo and group songs).

Using most of the original cast was the first of several laudable decisions made by Chris Columbus, an acknowledged "renthead" who's spent the better part of a decade nurturing Rent from stage to screen (Columbus is best known for his profitable, family-oriented films). Smartly, Columbus goes with a gritty, urban authenticity, circa 1989 (the loft/warehouse space, interiors and exteriors, were actually filmed in San Francisco's Treasure Island, but most viewers would assume that Rent was actually shot in Manhattan and not on a set), with only the occasional misstep or oversight.

More importantly, Columbus "opens up" Rent for the screen organically. Directors adapting stage musicals as a feature film generally take two approaches: static, stagy shots with minimal camera movement (an approach common to musicals during Hollywood's Golden Age in the 1950s) or the hyperkinetic, MTV-style popularized by Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge. Columbus takes a less obtrusive, but no less cinematic approach that emphasizes the dynamic performers and the ensemble pieces. For that and more, old and new Rent fans will find themselves extremely pleased with the results onscreen.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars