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“No day but today.”

“RENT” has a very special place in my heart and is one of a few key shows that are among my favorites. When the musical opened on Broadway in 1994, it took Broadway and the theatre world by a storm, and it wasn’t just because of the tragedy of the show’s writer, Jonathan Larson, passing away in the morning of the first preview show Off-Broadway. Let’s dive into this film adaptation of the award winning stage musical.

Still from "RENT" - The cast of RENT paired up as the respective couples, colour coordinating with the colour striped colour background

Synopsis of “RENT”

The musical “RENT” is a loose modernisation of the opera, “La Boheme”, set in the 90’s East Village of New York City. Focusing on the Bohemian lifestyle, the show dives into the dark topics of homelessness, protests, sex, drugs, and AIDS. Mark (Anthony Rapp), a struggling musician dealing with his girlfriends suicide and the recent revelation that he has AIDs himself. Roger (Adam Pascal) is an aspiring cinematography is still struggling with his ex, Maureen (Idina Menzel), dumping him for a woman – Joanne (Tracie Thoms). They are being evicted by their former roommate, Benny (Taye Diggs), who sold out to big money. Their friend Collins (Jesse L. Martin) is mugged when coming to visit, but is rescued by Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a larger than life drag queen. They bond right away in spite of them having AIDS. Maureen is preparing for her big protest against Benny, while going back and forth with Joanne. And lastly, the stripper and drug addict Mimi (Rosario Dawson), falls in love with Mark after a simple knock on the door. Starting on Christmas Eve, we watch as their lives intermingle through the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, and more. Culminating on Christmas Eve one year later, the show ends with a positive message: “No Day But Today.”

But this review is not about the musical, but rather the film adaptation released in 2005. The film’s production team had to take a musical written for the stage with iconic staging including the set, costumes, band, and more and place all of that onto the format for cinema – AND successfully appease to the fan base. Overall, they did a good job. When RENT premiered, Hollywood had only started to produce musical movies again and had little modern precedent to go from (Chicago in 2002, and Phantom of the Opera in 2004). But the film received mixed reviews from critics and is listed as a box office disappointment.

Still from "RENT" - Mark and Mimi dance on the cafe tables during "La Vie Boheme"

Let’s start with the positives aspects of this adaption

Onstage, we are direly limited to what can and cannot be seen due to things like space, set changes, time, and more. On film, this constriction is entirely eliminated. You can actually show a flashback through editing. Costumes and locations can change instantaneously. This adaptation successfully used this cinematic technique throughout the movie. A prime example is during “Glory.” In the stage musical, we merely listen to the lyrics as Roger tells the woes of his girlfriend telling him that they both have AIDS via a suicide note. In the film, we actually see their relationship from the good times together, the doctor’s diagnosis, and the suicide.

Later on during “Without You”, we see this technique used again. Onstage, this song is a passage of time montage of both Roger & Mimi’s relationship and Angel & Collins, as Angel increasingly gets more ill. There is some blocking and staging to help indicate what is happening, but the lyrics provide the actual description. On film, the director, Chris Columbus, was able to actually shoot and then edit together an actual montage of the events. You could even argue that there is a stronger emotional connection to this song in the film than onstage. We can witness the rawness of Mimi’s drug addition, withdrawal, and the impact on her relationship with Roger. Additionally, we can watch Collin trying to treat and cope with Angel’s illness from AIDS.

The other strong positive this film adaption brings is the realism to the set. Onstage, most of the locations are merely alluded to. Steel tables are brought together to create the The Life Cafe. A small stage is brought in for Maureen’s protest and the audience is actually the audience for the protest. All of these locations are played against a raw, industrial scaffolding set. But in the film, we actually have a set for The Life Cafe. The warm hues, other patrons at the cafe, and more give a different feel to the scene making it come alive even more – which is surprising because “La Vie Boheme” itself is QUITE an energetic number! Maureen’s protest is actually set in an abandoned warehouse with a crowd full of the homeless attendees (and the cop presence). This allows the film to actually show how the fight and the arrests at the protest erupted into chaos, which we only hear about during the musical.

The changes (some of which are major negatives!)

Switching the medium for the musical also requires some key changes. Being an avid lover of the musical, some of these changes offended me as a fan, but I can understand the reasoning. But some were such drastic changes that were not just for “adaptation purposes;” they actually changed the story. Those are the issues that bring down my rating of the film. The most obvious one issue is the brutal editing, cutting, and even gutting of the musical numbers.

RENT, the stage musical, is actually more an operetta since a majority of the dialogue is sung rather than inserting musical numbers into a script. The producers of the movie adaption must have felt that this wouldn’t translate well to non-musical lovers (remember, they are trying to produce a film for ALL audiences, not just musical theatre fans). So we lose a few numbers completely – “You’ll See,” “We’re Ok,” “Christmas Bells,” “Contact,” and “Halloween” are all cut, along with half of “Goodbye Love.” Other songs are placed in different locations – Seasons of Love starts off the movie rather than kicking off Act II; parts of “RENT,” like Joanne’s phone convo, takes place 20 minutes later – long after the song is over. Even the songs that were left “intact” were not safe – many introductions or smaller/shorter song “moments” were morphed into dialogue rather than singing.

The other issues I have with this film adaptation are more minor things that irked me. With what they did to the songs, the byproduct of this requires some changes to the script when comparing to the stage musical. The life support meeting takes place the day after, along with Mark helping Joanne with the production equipment. Angel and Collins having to buy the coat during “I’ll Cover You.” Again, these changes help the movie script hold tougher – but were only required because they gutted the libretto. Lastly, there are some actual musical changes made to the band and band parts. Some of the underscore is different in the film than the stage musical which makes any fan of the musical pause because it sounds wrong.

Still from "RENT" - The ensemble cast celebrate after breaking back into their squatter apartment

Overall, RENT is a good film to watch if you do not know the musical well. It is great to be able to see the musical on the big screen – even with the problematic changes. However, since they filmed the final performance of the musical when it closed on Broadway and have released that to DVD, I’d actually encourage everyone who has never seen the show live to watch that film before this one. But no matter which version and format you choose, the message still rings clear:

“No Day But Today”

Queer Relevance of “RENT”

“RENT” is rife with queer relevance! We have Angel who is a drag queen who falls in love with Collins, a gay homosexual relationship. Joanne and Maureen are in a lesbian homosexual relationship, even though Maureen is bisexual. And 4 of our 8 main characters have AIDS, which during the late 80’s and early 90’s plagued the gay community (in addition to the drug addicts community also represented).