Stephen Sondheim, hero and mentor to Rent composer Jonathan Larson, called his pupil's music "generous." Now there's an elusive compliment. One can almost imagine the sly Sondheim's thought process: "Whatever nice thing I say about this vaulting schmuck's ditties will be too generous...a-ha!" Rent is the sort of work that invites generosity. It's sneaky that way. On the surface, where it is most comfortable, it's an earnest, large-hearted trifle in epic attire, an empathic drama about AIDS and a good-faith effort to celebrate both old-fashioned bohemia in an age of gentrification and multicultural New York in an age of Friends. To point out that it's banal and maudlin, that as rock music it's rather like reheated Meat Loaf or Flashdance with two left feet, that its phony, pricey repackaging of bohemia is the very stuff it claims to decry...well, it feels like shooting fish in a barrel, only the fish are puppies. And yet there's something pernicious about these puppies.
Though film rights were secured not long after opening night's intermission, Rent arrives onscreen nearly 10 years after its Broadway debut. (Okay, it debuted off Broadway, but that was part of the marketing plan.) The timing is odd in that the iron has cooled. Then again, Rent's fans remain legion and they're proven repeat customers, a commodity familiar to director Chris Columbus (who made the first two Harry Potter movies as well as Mrs. Doubtfire, which I guess gave him the transsexual-friendly cred needed for Rent). And maybe the timing is brilliant. Now that AIDS, to many Americans, is an African problem, out of sight and out of mind, Rent's tragic elements are more abstract, easier Christmas fare. Plus, we're in the beginning stages of a '90s nostalgia boom; a '96 work set in '89 and '90 might be just the ticket. When the film's hero, Mark (Anthony Rapp, transferred, like much of the film's cast, from the original stage production), issues a plea to his dying, bickering friends--"C'mon guys, chill!"--perhaps audiences will surrender the weren't we/they dorks back then? guffaws the line deserves. But I doubt it.
Rent has a storied if ignominious history. It was originally conceived by playwright Billy Aronson, who wanted to update Puccini's La Bohème by setting its artists and vagabonds in New York. Aronson teamed with Larson to realize the idea, but the collaboration fizzled, and Larson proceeded with the idea on his own. While writing the show, Larson read People in Trouble, a 1990 novel by Sarah Schulman about life in an East Village besieged by AIDS, gentrification, and the homophobia that exacerbated the former crisis. By the time Rent was finished, many of its East Village characters and scenes were exceedingly similar to those in Schulman's book. According to an unrelated plagiarism suit, settled out of court, Rent also used the uncredited ideas, including some song lyrics, of dramaturge Lynn Thompson. Of course not everyone can write music and lyrics and make up stories and characters, which is why the division-of-labor method works so well at producing multifaceted entertainment. Larson's solution, it seems, was to do what he could do and filch what he couldn't.
Schulman, a lesbian novelist, playwright, founding member of Act Up, and a longtime East Village resident, obviously had personal reasons to be pissed about all of this. But she also had political beefs with Rent, a case laid out in her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America. As with so many mainstream concessions to diversity, Rent's multiculturalism is, she argues, about "erasing the specificities of minority experience." Four of Rent's leading characters have AIDS or are HIV-positive. Two are homeless and gay (Angel, a Puerto Rican drag queen, and Tom Collins, a black math-genius Robin Hood), and two have cheap apartments and are straight (Roger, a struggling white rocker, and Mimi, a Puerto Rican junkie stripper). But they're all in the same boat: Class, race, sexuality, and gender don't appear to vary their experience fundamentally. Those factors, however, might vary their fates. While both Angel and Mimi die, Mimi is resurrected--by the white guy's deathly rock ballad.
Homophobia isn't really an issue, and in fact the play's one openly antigay character has been excised from the film (which has inserted a pitch for gay marriage rights-- well-meaning, I suppose). The straight characters, though underdeveloped, are at least given faults and strengths. The movie's gay men (not the lesbians, mostly bitchy) are saintly--Angel, as his name suggests, even supernaturally so. (Perhaps that explains how he can reference Thelma & Louise more than two years before its release.) This flattening of difference may be rooted in a noble if naïve longing for universality, but when distinctions of power and privilege don't really matter, soon nothing does. Just weeks before Rent premiered, Larson died. A show about young people dying written (more or less) by a dead man was a great selling point. The fact that Larson, who was straight, died not of AIDS but of an aortic aneurysm was an immaterial piece of trivia brought up only by paranoid meanies. In Rent's big song-and-dance number and best song, "La Vie Bohème," Mark, the Larson surrogate, pumps his fist and shouts an Act Up slogan, but his real message--Act up for student-rate tickets, maybe, or It's hip to be square--is anyone's guess. "It was like a Mississippi bluesman having his song ripped off by Pat Boone," wrote Schulman. Except that Boone never got a Pulitzer.
Great fiction might often be a lie that sounds like the truth. (So, too, for great songs, great religion, or a great movie.) But artful liars can sidestep that with an elegant phrase, a startling camera angle, an unexpected harmony, a melody whose merits go beyond being memorable (jingles and nightmares are memorable, too). If only Rent were a better piece of work--if it were phony but fabulous--it might lead to one of those great aesthetics-versus-morality dilemmas. A movie that rewrites history though great songs--that could be a truly guilty pleasure. A lie that sounds like shit, though, is another neighborhood.