December 25th, 2am, Eastern Standard Time
I enjoy watching RENT around Christmas time. A solitary act, to avoid anyone catching my tears or questioning why the characters just…don’t…pay…well, you know. The rent. I freely and readily acknowledge that the 2005 film adaptation of the 1996 Broadway show is a flawed operation with raw, untamed source material to boot. Oddly lacklustre where there should, in fact, be many a lustre, a cavalcade of missed opportunities, each of which I’ve cinematographer-ed in my head to the frame. The original stage show of RENT was, to use a reductive but mighty speedy analogy, the Hamilton of its day, inspired by the opera La Boheme as much as it was by creator Jonathan Larson’s life, friends, and experiences during the AIDS crisis in NYC in the 1980s. Its backstory fuels its frontstory in a horribly sad way - Larson died the night before its off-Broadway premiere, of an aortic aneurysm related to undiagnosed Marfan Syndrome. In a show so focussed on love and death and life and the now, a show that Larson chose to end with the words “no day but today”, it’s impossible to not feel an ache at the sad irony, for the unfathomable loss.
As such, the film adaptation had a lot of expectation riding on it, 2005 being the high peak of internet forums and LiveJournal plus the approach of the show’s ten year anniversary. It was received badly by critics (“the sound of one hand clapping”, Roger Ebert surmised gloomily) and had deeply mixed responses from fans. I myself came to it independently of the original text, as is so often the case when you live in New Zealand and are well of age before the ubiquity of YouTube, streaming, or even like, Glee. And as such, it is with a heavy heart and a rueful sigh that I concede, I cannot help loving this stupid film.
Upon Christmas night, 2017, I found myself about to have a panic attack just as midnight approached. I’d also just started watching RENT. What the heck, I told myself in a sprightly manner, I’ll treat myself to a lorazepam rather than going through the emotional labour of breathing exercises and mantra repetition. It’s Christmas. I made it precisely halfway through the film and suddenly I couldn’t watch any more. I paused the video on my laptop screen.
I have to write a directionless essay about RENT and I can’t waste another moment, I thought to myself.
(It’s probably worth pointing out here that I’m also currently taking medication which I believe has a side effect of making me feel things at a bordering-on-incapacitatingly deep level, or is this just who I am? Either way, here we somewhat regrettably find ourselves.)
If you haven’t tuned out already, and I can’t imagine why you would, the main thrust of the following is as follows:
- The film adaptation is actually kind of okay.
- However, what on earth was the director thinking here, here and here (*gestures wildly at the screen*)
- Initially even I, the most hardline RENT fan, have conceded that maybe Adam Pascal’s acting let the team down a little.
- However, in retrospect, he might actually be an acting GENIUS and I owe him an personal apology for labouring under this misapprehension?
I’m about to take a deep dive, song by song, a dive whose depth is matched only by the enormity of the general consensus that it’s not a dive worth taking. Steady yourself.
Seasons of Love
Look, I’m the first to tell you that Chris Columbus should not have directed this film. He helmed Mrs Doubtfire, Home Alone, and what I understand, yet do not care to confirm, are the least-acclaimed of the Harry Potter movies. His decision to have the bulk of the original cast reprise their roles is interesting: it makes for some weird age stuff but I get why he did it and I’m okay with it. I do however, enthusiastically salute his decision to move Seasons of Love, the stage show’s linchpin and Act 2 opener, to the start of the film. (Ding! This noise will sound every time I point out something that the film does right.) It exists outside of any timeline, gently drawing you into the world and worldview of the characters without any of the aggressive exposition of the stage show. (The character of Mark just loves to tell you how the sausage is made.)
Tracie Thoms (as Joanne) and Jesse L Martin (as Collins) assume the soloist roles. Look at Tracie’s face. That is the face of someone who grew up loving RENT, auditioned for it many unsuccessful times, and is now singing the most anticipated part of a song that even the coldest critics acknowledge is sodding beautiful, alongside the original cast members of the stage show. Get it, Tracie.
Hold me closer, tiny moment: Anthony Rapp’s full-body hand clapping, a prediction of many more profound undulations to come.
Rob Cavallo produced the soundtrack for this movie. His background is in rock and pop punk, producing many of Green Day’s albums including American Idiot, and The Black Parade for My Chemical Romance. That influence is immediately clear on the title track, where he gives the song a long, urgent drum lead-in, like a heart beating faster, faster, till the relief of the explosion of guitars. It’s louder, bigger, and glossier than the stage cast recording and no one can deny that Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp are still in excellent voice ten years after their debut, and both suit the extra support that said production gives their respective vibrato-heavy and nasal outpourings. (Ding!)
It starts with Mark (Anthony Rapp) riding a bike. Of course he’d ride a bike. That’s all I have to say about that. This song elides the contrapuntal character introduction that the stage show layers up on heavily, its only concession being the Jesse L Martin’s character Collins who we witness getting beaten up on his way to see Mark and Roger. This is probably sensible so as to not swamp audiences with too much information. (Ding!) The dark shadows, blue tones (it’s cold, get it?) and general displays of violence and anger show us a harsher, pre-Giuliani NYC. While the stage show premiered on Broadway two years into Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty, it was workshopped as early as 1993 and had been vaguely in the making since 1989, all of which likely contributes to its Gritty But With Jazz Hands vibe.
There’s probably a point to be drawn between the environment of this song and the current State of Things in America with healthcare and stuff but I’m by no means the brain to make it. I will say, however, that I heartily applaud the decision, whomever’s it was, to make Adam Pascal grow his hair long and floppy for his portrayal of Roger. It makes him look more youthful, it suits the pre-grunge era his character has been wallowing in, and it amplifies any Bon Jovi vibes he’s already bringing to the table. (Ding!)
The last thing I have to say about this song is that it performs the neat trick of bookending two really awkward lines with two fantastic lines, so your cringe and adrenaline receptors get a right old whiplashing.
“Draw a line in the sand and then make a stand!” — Taye Diggs as Benny is charm itself and this reprimand not only acts as a response to Roger and Mark’s otherwise one-sided angry flailing, it scans nicely, is decent advice, and in the mouth of Diggs, is a pleasure to the ears.
“Use your camera to spar” (Roger) “Use your guitar!” (Mark). Uh. Guys. Wyd. You’re planning to bludgeon Benny with your camera? Canter towards him imperiously with your guitar held aloft like a jousting stick? Even if we generously interpret it as Mark using his camera to take damning footage of Benny for his work in progress documentary, what’s the guitar going to do? Is Roger to play a song that will scare off Benny or calm him down and is he currently capable of either?
“When they act tough you call their bluff” The ensemble brings us back down to earth with this feast of short, sharp words and equally sound advice.
We don’t get the You Okay Honey number between Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and Collins, but the two actors glow in the small, sparsely-dialogued scene they’re given. Jesse L Martin’s line reading of “me too” just as we fade to black is beautiful. (Ding!)
As a song, You’ll See is neither here nor there and yet pleasantly calm after the previous intensity. Taye Diggs is just, like, you practically want to join him in his cyberspace arts hub condominium venture, confusing though it sounds and even though you’re pretty sure you should be siding with Roger and Mark. We get some genuine old school RENT exposition, with Mark training his ever-present camera on Benny and describing how he fits into the picture — a former friend who married rich and now has come to collect the rent for his father-in-law’s building after they heard about Maureen protesting…something. Benny responds by letting us know that Roger is coming off of a year of withdrawal. In the stage show it’s only half a year, but we’ll come back to this later! Who’s Maureen? Mark’s ex-girlfriend, and she has dumped him for a lawyer named Joanne. Well.
In some ways Benny is like Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, but without any of the killer songs. He’s the outsider friend who tells the unkind truth in a harsh way, like Judas in Everything’s Alright berating Mary Magdalene for comforting Jesus instead of selling her perfume, and it’s like, well, everyone kind of has a point here.
Hold me closer, tiny moment: The posters that Benny’s ripping off the wall are for Maureen’s protest. Taye Diggs was also the husband at the time to Idina Menzel, who plays Maureen.
One Song Glory
This is a genuinely great song, the kind that Bon Jovi might spend some time gaslighting himself about whether or not he actually did write it and he just doesn’t remember because the 80s were a richly hedonistic time. Not least because it contains the line “blaze of glory”.
One thing RENT does attempt, to its credit, is undermining its sincerity just as it’s about to woozily burst from it. Like razorblades in syrup — Roger referring to himself as the “pretty-boy frontman with wasted opportunities” is a contrast to Mark’s earlier (in the stage show) hugely sincere declaration that there are posters on the walls from Roger’s gigs at CBGB’s and the Pyramid Club.
Through the filmed montage behind this song we learn that Roger had a girlfriend and they both contracted AIDS together via needles. There’s no direct implication of how she dies in the movie, unlike the stage show, and I’m chill with that.
Hold me closer, tiny moment: I love the outfit that his girlfriend is wearing in the flashback when she goes to the dealer to score.
Light My Candle
This is an exquisite piece of songwriting from Larson. The back and forth of uncertainties and half-sentences with the hypnotic beat and the anchoring sway of “would you light my candle.” The character development and storytelling. The clever reference to a similar scene in La Boheme.
Okay so let’s talk about the acting in this scene. Rosario Dawson absolutely succeeds as Mimi alongside the original cast members (Ding!) The original Mimi, created by Daphne Rubin-Vega, had a throaty, husky voice that gave a rawness to her vulnerability. Dawson has a light, sweet voice with a matter of fact talky sound to it (“I always remind people of- who is she?”) She is luminous on screen from the second she appears and exudes charisma. The minimal light just leaps towards her face.
Initially, even with all my love of, well, everything, a small voice in the back of my head said “possibly Adam Pascal isn’t that great a film actor and they don’t really have chemistry and the only reason they do is because Rosario Dawson is so purely lit up from within and sparkling that she could have chemistry with an actual tree.” For some reason this time around though, I’m suddenly like…Roger has been in withdrawal for a year. He’s genuinely depressed and has, as per the exposition, not left the house this entire time. He just expended a lot of energy singing his Bon Jovi song and from bellowing the word “rent!” literally five times in a row at the climax of the title song. That would take it out of anyone.
As such, Pascal is not just standing there, he is in fact deftly portraying someone that’s really, really emotionally tired, but also having their interest extremely piqued by this bright and beautiful woman, but also showing weary caution because he knows she uses the drug which he is trying to get rid of from his life. And he lost his girlfriend. He conveys all of that with his minimal facial expressions and when he does do something with his face, what a treat! He’s engaging in spite of his overwhelming sadness and indeed, better judgement! And it’s not about needing a light for the candle at all! It’s clearly a ruse for Mimi to flirt with her hot neighbour but also a metaphor for finding an interest in life again! It’s possibly the cutest song ever written where a large part of it revolves around someone looking for their dropped stash!
Today For You
The movie adaptation extends Act One to run over a two-day timeline as opposed to it all happening in the stage show on some magical Christmas Eve that’s 525,600 minutes long and I get it, the amount of plot that’s supposed to conspire over the course of one night is genuinely, laughably ludicrous. BUT nevertheless I’m disappointed that Chris Columbus didn’t try. No Ding! for you, Columbus.
So we wake up on Christmas Day morning and are met by Collins and Angel, the former laden with vodka for Roger and Mark (“Merry Christmas, bitches!”) and the latter dressed in Christmassy drag and looking beautiful. This song is like…so the content of it is disturbing (Angel got paid by a rich lady to lure her neighbour’s irritating dog to its death with his drumming, that’s some American Psycho shit right there; however it should be noted that this macabre tale is directly referencing Angel’s corresponding character in La Boheme who was paid to drive a parrot to its death by playing the piano, so there’s a point…somewhere) but the tune is so upbeat and Heredia is so endlessly winning as the Panglossian Angel and it’s fun watching these four actors recreating something they did back in 1996, as you can see in their reactions to each other.
You also get Angel’s playful authoritativeness and Collin’s plainly adoring looks at her forming the start of what will be an incredibly beautiful relationship.
Angel does this cute bounce out of the frame at the end of this scene, and it’s little decisions like that by Heredia, plus the space in which to execute them, that give this character dimension that is often more implied than shown in the stage show. (Ding!)
Hold me closer, tiny moment: Collins’ whipping noises at Mark after Maureen calls to ask him to help her with her stage set up. The bouncing crumbs on the table that Angel is drumming on. The whole “and then they call. And I remember” line is decent for new dialogue and helps further the connection between Mark and Roger. (Ding!) Collins is only in his socks having kicked off his shoes when he arrives and skids on the floor in his excitement to open the door to reveal Angel.
The character of Maureen doesn’t actually appear in person until almost the end of the first act. I like how they played with the form in this number and brought her on for a dream sequence (Ding!) extrapolating out the tango theme of the song to an actual visual representation of what they’re singing about. Not least because Idina Menzel looks just, stupidly stunning, but it’s an example of what a film can do easily that could be hard work on stage.
Plus check out the powersuit Tracie gets to wear.
Idina Menzel as Maureen enthusiastically gallumphs through the tango scene but Tracie Thoms and Anthony Rapp have the kind of crackling chemistry you’d hope to see from the current and former beau of an attention-seeking bisexual performance artist. Is Maureen even worth all this effort? It barely matters because they’re both so caught up in their feelings for her and will jump at her call.
Hold me closer, tiny moment: creator Jonathan Larson actually did have a girlfriend break up with him for another woman. Write what you know, I guess.
My first brush with RENT, even though I didn’t realise it at the time, was through a parody version of the show (Lease!) in Team America: World Police. You see, the reason the number “Everyone has AIDS” is funny is because so many characters in RENT have AIDS and they kinda sing about it sometimes. You see???
Meanwhile, it’s the turn of the decade in NYC and Jonathan Larson was indeed losing friends to this very real illness. The characters at the support group meeting who name themselves in this song: Gordon, Allie, Pam, Sue, these names all honour friends of Larson himself. Again with the poignancy stabs- a now-dead Larson giving his late friends life through his musical in a song that gives us that central refrain “no day but today.”
I like the set up for this scene, Mark is less abruptly irritating than he appears in the stage production (ding!) and there’s a gentle, generous energy to the group. Plus we get the classic line, “I’m a New Yorker, fear’s my life.” (Suck it, Giuliani.)
Hold me closer, tiny moment: Angel’s pinky finger wave to Mark, acknowledging him as he stumbles in.
I read a review of RENT once which described this number as a “two minute advert for the ab-roller” and while Rosario Dawson has a stomach you could grate a fresh nutmeg on, perhaps over some artisinal carbonara, there’s much more to it than that.
The song itself is fantastic in a big, brash, 80s pop-rock way. Listen to, say, We Are Not Alone by Karla DeVito (1985) or Hit Me With Your Best Shot by Pat Benatar (1980) or even I Wanna Dance With Somebody by Whitney Houston (1987) and you’ll hear the paths that lead to this track.
The way the song is filmed takes us from the Cat Scratch Club where Mimi is a dancer (“it’s a living”) and then allows her to prowl home and climb up to Roger’s window. It’s a tidy piece of storytelling (ding!) that Dawson absolutely shines through, from the fluid ease of her dancing to her hyped up strut home, to the go-big-or-go-home bravado with which she bursts through the window. I love that there are nods to the original stage choreography — her backwards bend, the shucking of a coat revealing a revealing costume, the devil-may-care balancing act on the hand-railings. (Ding!)
Hold me closer, tiny moment: Dawson’s happy “mmmmmm” riff between verse 1 and 2; Roger’s bewildered half smile when she appears through his window.
Oh, here we GO. Soundtrack producer Rob Cavallo has his work cut out for him in this rockier number, and the difference between the Original Cast Recording version and that of the soundtrack are remarkable. (Ding!)
God, the camera loves Rosario Dawson.
I do appreciate how the music of RENT subverts the expectations of your ears at every turn. When I first heard One Song Glory I was like, coooool, a slow song, my attention span can’t waaaait to handle this. And then suddenly the pace amps up considerably and Roger is belting about blazes of glory. On the other hand, Benny’s You’ll See number looks like it’s about to become a big tune when in fact it’s just a meandering little expository ditty. With this song, it seems to be a whole lot of Roger yelling at Mimi when she swoops in and cracks it wide open into a major key, taking the Life Support anthem “there’s only us, there’s only this…no day but today”. Roger is unimpressed, but still! It’s lovely.
We also get the first of the “I should tell you, I should tell you” motif. It’s hard because on the one hand, Roger is being really sensible here. He makes a valid point, in that he’s been hurt before and has spent a year in withdrawal and he is in no position to have a wild night on smack just because Mimi’s feeling up for it. He also doesn’t owe her the information that he has AIDS. Unfortunately he’s being so shouty and righteous instead of just talking to her and it’s not her fault that he’s an emotional zombie iceberg. He’s been hurt, she’s been hurt, they understand each other but he’s also put up walls to protect himself and in a misguided way, her as well. They could save each other, but who saves who, and is that a foundation to build a relationship upon? Whomst?
Hold me closer, tiny moment: I swear the final “another day” by Roger in cadence and delivery shares DNA with Billie Joe singing Holiday by Green Day, giving it more heft than the Original Cast Recording (ding!)
We’re back at Life Support.
“Will I lose my dignity, will someone care?” is the refrain that encircles this song. It’s a simple and affecting question and based on a conversation Jonathan Larson witnessed at an IRL support group meeting.
Roger finally leaves the house. The filmwork allows us to sense the magnitude of this (with the stage show’s minimal sets, everyone’s always just…on stage. So it’s harder to convey different spaces.) (ding!) and his voice sounds wonderful when he joins in the round. In another great bit of acting from Pascal, he does the tiniest eye roll when Collins rapturously smiles at him, like he’s acknowledging but also brushing off the hugeness of his actually leaving the house. The look on Anthony Rapp’s face when Mark clocks Roger’s presence is also wonderful.
Hold me closer, tiny moment: The man who leads the round is Aaron Lohr, who would later go on to marry Idina Menzel, her and Diggs having split a couple of years ago. (He would also co-star with her on Broadway in 2005 in Michael John LaChiusa’s musical See What I Wanna See.)
As I said, razorblades in syrup- at the start of this scene, Mark gets rightly bawled out by a homeless woman as he films police officers trying to get her to move — “I’m not here for you to make a name for yourself on….Just trying to use me to kill his guilt, it’s not that kind of movie, honey”. The stage version has a lot more swearing, and I think the movie loses something for PG 13-ing it. Either way, I’m glad that the show pauses the plot here to remind us that Mark’s movie probably isn’t that great and that all his posturing about struggling, though sincere, doesn’t necessarily translate into any useful action.
Santa Fe though- this song is just beautiful. Understated, mellow, soulful, fun, and it moves along the relationship between Collins and Angel. The choreography is wonderful- Heredia and Martin effortlessly melt into and away from each other, making you forget that they’re in a subway car (ding!) and it’s a relief to have the mood lightened, even if they’re singing about escaping “this cold Bohemian hell”.
Hold me closer, tiny moment: Collins’ lil pop and lock to Roger as they descend the stairs to the subway, Roger’s slightly reluctant echo of “gain” as Collins points to him. Jesse L Martin’s hugely proficient pirouettes.
I’ll Cover You
This is the sort of song you long for someone to sing to you. A love song that promises you’ll care and be cared for, that you’ll be equal partners, that you’re both as enraptured with each other as can possibly be but still level-headed enough to make puns relating to the title of the musical that you’re in (“I think they meant it, when they said you can’t buy love, now I know you can rent it, a new lease you are my love, on life…”) Darkly, this alludes to the fact that they’re both very sick — as opposed to just a metaphorical renting, it’s like, we’re literally loving on borrowed time here. The songs also brings up baggage, which is a running through line in RENT — how much of a person’s can you handle? It then plays with the word “cover” and what it means — I’ll shelter you, I’ll cover you in kisses, I’ll pay for your needs.
The cinematography is lovely, with the cold December sun bouncing off every surface and the two actors, Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Jesse L Martin, blatantly super comfortable and at home with this song. It’s also possibly the peak moment of happiness in the show, before everything starts sliding ever-so-slightly, and then massively, downhill. “I’ll cover you” sings Angel, “when your heart has expired” replies Collins, in an almost throwaway line that alas predicts exactly where this story is going. Let’s ignore that for now and just be happy for their happiness.
Okay, so: in the stage show, the number starts with Collins nervously asking “are we…a thing?” and Angel replying “darling, we’re everything” and I’m sad they omitted that for the movie because it’s such a sweet little exchange. However, during the climactic refrain of “oh lover, I’ll cover you” I’ve got to hand it to the film. The Original Cast Recording is gorgeous — how could it not be — but for the film they add Heredia harmonising on top of Martin for the “yea-yeah-yeahhh” part after it and it just sounds so rapturously happy and throw-your-arms-around-the-world uplifting. (DING!)
Before we get too comfortable resting here on our laurels! This song sits just before the Christmas Bells number in the stage show, which Christopher Columbus doesn’t even try to envision, simply cutting it out and transferring bits of dialogue and action into other scenes. It’s such a missed opportunity and yeah, it’d be a lot of work but but like (1) you signed up to this, Columbus, you’re making a movie, not a sandwich (2) there’s a ton of character development at stake.
Take Roger telling Mimi “let’s not hold hands yet” and Mimi replying “is that a warning?” This ramps up that edgy, nervous energy between them where neither is sure where they stand and both are trying to cling to whatever semblance of control they can find. In the movie all you’re left with is some small talk between the two characters. In Christmas Bells you get Roger actually beginning to open up to Mark about his feelings. You get an understanding of why Benny’s in a hard place with his father-in-law. You get a more strung out Mimi. You get the amazing line “I got a tweed broken in by a greedy broker who went broke, and then broke down” from the coat vendor. I can literally picture exactly how to film it, which lines to condense, how to edit it, the whole thing. I’m disappointed in you, Christopher Columbus.
Hold me closer, tiny moment: I love the left to right hip synchronisation during the line “I’ll be your blanket”.
Over The Moon
RENT will later fall down with Roger’s big song to Mimi, a song that he’s taken a year to write, a song that’s supposed to envelope all his feelings for her and bring her back to life but lacks any of the power of all the songs that have come before it, a song we’ve been anticipating soooo hard. The other number this hotly anticipated by the characters themselves, is Maureen’s protest performance. And it wins, because…well, it’s not supposed to be good. You know how in 30 Rock, the in-universe Girly Show/TGS skits are objectively terrible to us, the viewer, and that makes it funnier? That’s what’s happening here. Idina Menzel was told, during her development of the character for the original off-Broadway production, that Maureen was someone who fancied herself as a Laurie Moore type, but hadn’t found her own voice, so got stuck in pastiche and mimicry instead. Thus you get the terrible brilliance of her “Hey Diddle Diddle” allegory which leads absolutely nowhere but allows her to gambol about the stage with facial contortions and broad metaphors and references to Diet Coke. She thinks it’s amazing, we know it’s not.
By this point in the show the anger of the opening title track has gone basically nowhere, and you have to accept that what started out as plot has become a series of loose vignettes that have very little to do with the burden of paying rent at all, but apparently this protest has something to do with it.
Idina Menzel is beyond beautiful — that first reveal of her face as she removes her motorcycle helmet is like, whoa — and I love how she acts with every inch of her face. You can tell that the character really believes she’s doing something deep and meaningful.
The production once again breathes new life into this oddball song. The synthy “leap of faith, leap of faith” refrain coupled with Maureen’s soothing chorus of “only thing to do is jump over the moon” is practically begging to be turned into an EDM track, but maybe that’s just me.
In RogerWatch, he yells at an irate dealer — “you didn’t miss me, you won’t miss her!” and gives a very restrained apology to Mimi. As I’ve said, we miss a whole ton of character beats for him with the removal of Christmas Bells and I’ll never not be salty about it, so all we get is a stiffly reserved guy who’s kind of trying his best.
Hold me closer, tiny moment: I can only imagine how fun it would have been recording Menzel’s face for the TV screens in the background. I love Maureen’s massive exhale at the start of her performance, like she’s steadying herself for something enormous. For all that I complain about the lack of Christmas Bells there’s some good non-verbal acting from the cast in the crowd — Roger’s fond look at Mimi when she cheers Maureen on, Mimi’s tight-lipped face when Benny is mentioned.
La Vie Boheme
The rally cry of a generation! Or something. The sincerity really steps it up a notch here so you’re either in or out — if you think they’re a bunch of whiny pretentious idiots then this is only going to solidify that notion.
Again, the sound production on this film really serves the songs well. In a song requiring a lot of conviction, you want the background music to be committed as well. (Ding!) As I’ve said, Rob Cavallo produced for Green Day and My Chem amongst others. Welcome to the Black Parade was released a year after this film but I swear you can hear the similarity in mood — a measured, anticipatory, church-toned swelling to start, a sudden springing to life followed by ecstatic chorus.
This song is essentially their salute to the counterculture, to artists, to sexuality, to everything the characters embody or firmly believe they embody. You really just have to embrace it or don’t. If not, there’s always Benny to side with, as he kicks off the song by announcing that the bohemian lifestyle they hold so dear is “a fallacy in your head.” At this point it’s worth noting that again, the film cuts out references to Benny’s history with Mimi, for better or for worse.
But really the whole thing is a series of excellent moments. It looks like it was an absolute ball to film.
- Angel’s triumphant “kapow!” as she produces money to pay for dinner. I realise I use that phrase to this day when doing the same thing without realising it came from this.
- “Fine, just please don’t move the tables together” “Hey, Rosie, lets put these tables together!”
- Joanne’s power stance with her boot up on the table around Maureen at the start of the song, which, fair enough.
- Taye Diggs is so unflappable as Benny, bless him.
- It’s nice that bisexuality gets a shout out when like, Sex and the City some years later would call it “a layover on the way to Gaytown.”
- Anthony Rapp’s dancing honestly gives Mark as much character depth as any of his actual dialogue.
- Mimi’s outfit is incredible. To this day any time I lounge around with my jacket hanging off my shoulders by my elbows it’s unconsciously influenced by this look.
- RogerWatch! He’s emerging from his shell, clowning around and jumping on the table arm in arm with Collins to pay tribute to Lenny Bruce and Langston Hughes.
- I love the insider-baseball smirk of Mark hoping Roger will write a song that “doesn’t remind us of Musetta’s Waltz”, a song from the opera La Boheme, as if we’re all like “yeah, god Roger, not that again” and not adding Musetta’s Waltz to our list of references made in the show that we have to Google.
- Again, acting with her whole face, Idina Menzel is a treat on the “hey mister, she’s my sister” line.
Mimi confronts Roger about how he’s kind of ignoring her and she gives the great line “life’s too short babe, time is flying, I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine” — at this point she doesn’t know he has AIDS and vice versa so at there’s a whole lot to unpack here plus Dawson’s impassioned delivery is fantastic. Then Roger’s beeper goes off and they both realise at last (Roger in wonderment, Mimi with weariness) what they have in common.
I Should Tell You
Unlike I’ll Cover You, which lays out a confident manifesto of the relationship-to-be, this song is half-articulated fragments and bordering-on-frustrating sentiments that trail off halfway through. Several years later, Stephen Sater would take this concept and run with it for practically the entire libretto ofthe musical Spring Awakening. (I mean, I assume so.) This song is two hands inching closer towards each other as you sit side by side, both of you pretending you’re not in the slightest bit aware or invested in what’s happening. It’s the maddeningly endless moment before a kiss and the terror that it might not happen and so you’d rather stay here in this almost-kiss than move a muscle and break the spell and have it all disappear.
As such it’s kind of hard to stage. Here, Mimi and Roger wander around in the snow, glancing shyly at each other, before finally kissing. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s nice.
La Vie Boheme B
So La Vie Boheme is broken into two parts, which makes for a nice rollercoaster of energy and ends the first half of the story on a big old high. Look at Roger! He literally pirouettes! The change between the reluctant pillar of lethargy who we meet at the start of the film and this guy genuinely leaping for joy is delightful.
Here’s one thing that the film does really, really right, I think. In the stage show, Roger and Mimi are off to the side still making out, not part of this conclusion to the song. As well as that, Joanne and Maureen are in the middle of a break up during the song which means Joanne is away for most of it. It always seemed like a shame to me, and I love that here the group is united (Ding!) as the dynamic is best when they’re together and happy and that final pan across them all dancing on the table, dreamily slowed down, is genuinely beautiful filming (Ding!). Collins and Angel, Roger and Mimi, Maureen and Joanne all absorbed in each others’ eyes and bodies, Mark dancing alone like a dingus.
Hold me closer, tiny moment: Mimi and Roger somehow get behind the bar to have shots in the corner of the frame during everyone’s salutes to their various pursuits. According to the blackboard, drinks on sale include: Mulled wine, buttered rum, eggnog, Margaritas. Maureen’s “love you” to Joanne, just as the camera fades to black.
Seasons of Love B
As I said, the film pushes Seasons of Love to the start of the film, but still has this reprise up its sleeve with which to differentiate the two halves of the story. Wisely (ding!) a montage is used, which we presume is footage from Mark’s documentary, showing the characters goofing around, vamping for the camera, and just enjoying their own space. The nature of stage musicals generally doesn’t allow for much of that inbetween time — you just have to accept that these people are in love because they sing about it — so it’s clever of the film to give us these casual moments.
We descend into New Years Eve, which is a two-part song in the stage show. It’s messy but fun (including Taye Diggs getting to rhyme “seductive” with “counterproductive”) and it’s a shame they didn’t try it here because we’re left with, honestly, a pretty low-energy patch of the film that won’t lift up until the next number. The scene on stage also gives Angel some more opportunities to unite the volatile group with his message of peace and love, and this bit of the movie definitely could have used that light touch. Also again Benny’s history with Mimi is edged out whereas in the stage show it’s front and centre. He doesn’t even appear here.
However, the first bit starts optimistically and fun-ly, with Roger’s New Year’s Resolution being “finish a song” while Mimi is promising to give up her vices and go back to school. And Maureen is dressed as Catwoman.
Hold me closer, tiny moment: Joanne smacking Maureen’s butt as they walk down the street. Mark’s cry of “this isn’t my bar mitzvah!” as Maureen grabs the camera off him and trains it on his face cracks me up. Mimi’s wearing the blue pants that she wears in the stage show during Out Tonight. Collins: “you’re drunk.” Angel (slurring) “no I’m not” as she busts open the locked door. Maureen somehow expressively eating potato chips.
Take Me Or Leave Me
This scene is…wild. In the stage show, Maureen and Joanne are rehearsing for Maureen’s next protest. In the film version? Joanne, incensed by Maureen’s constant flirting, gives her an ultimatum which results in their engagement followed by a showdown at the lavish engagement party. The stage show lets us know early on via parental voicemails that Joanne comes from a high-powered money family, but this is the first time in the film that we really see it. It’s jarring, but it’s the scene we’re getting, and the song itself is so unsinkably ebullient that they could be serenading each other in a sewer and it would still work (hell, it would probably be more authentic to the story.) Do we care that marriage equality was literal decades away in NYC at the time, do we readily accept that both sets of parents not to mention the many, many guests would be accepting of this union? Sure, why not. Just because it was 1990 doesn’t mean everyone was a narrow-minded asshole.
Which is what makes the decision to put the number against this backdrop all the more disappointing, because like…of course the two women can’t get it together. Of course Maureen has to ruin her own expensive engagement party because of her own deep-seated fear of commitment and desire for attention. It’s not like her and Joanne don’t both have valid points (Maureen particularly lays it out on the table, like, “boys, girls, I can’t help it baby” to the point where you’re like gosh, who even can help it in this economy?)
The song itself though? Absolutely killer. When I was in university, with access to online journal databases, I realised that I could procrastinate wildly by typing in keywords such as “RENT” “Idina Menzel”, etc, and reading reviews and articles dating back to the mid-nineties. One journalist described Menzel’s voice as oily yet metallic, and I’ve never struck on a more accurate take. Her voice lost a lot of its rough, rocky edge in the ten years since she debuted on Broadway, which is probably good for her professionally — it’s doubtful she would’ve got the Frozen gig with her 90s treacly growl — but I do miss it sometimes.
However, her and Tracie Thoms, who has a rich, clear soprano, harmonise gloriously together. And if you ever doubted Joanne’s place in the ensemble, Thoms’ delivery of her chorus is a triumph, you practically want to stand up and applaud as she throws off her coat and walks down the stairs singing “take me for what I am”, her arms outstretched.
And then finally, after all this energy, we approach the issue of Benny and Mimi and Roger. Benny is waiting at the apartment to give Roger and Mark a new lease, which, while smarmy in delivery, is a remarkably magnanimous move, all things considered. He mentions that Mimi persuaded him to do so when they caught up over dinner. Roger gets all het up. It’s like…yes, admittedly this is not delightful that your current girlfriend has history with your ex-friend and kind-of landlord but you’re doing so well so far! Communicate! Trust! Communicate!
It’s crunch time.
It’s also montage time. By the time this song ends, Angel is going to die, and you know it. In the original stage production, there is a song called Contact which is practically performance art in itself, about metaphorical and literal sex, it looks a nightmare to stage and is unsurprisingly cut from the school edition of the script. In this song Angel’s end is fierce, powerful, a candle in the actual damn wind trying too hard to burn against the odds. The film montage is more traditional — we see him in hospital growing weaker and weaker. We return to the Life Support group and slowly lives there are snuffed out, indicated by their fading from the screen. Mimi tries and fails to come off smack, and Rosario Dawson does admirable work in conveying the horrors of this. The song is so gentle and has no chorus so you don’t know when it’s going to end but you just kind of pray that it doesn’t, so that we can stay in this montage bubble forever even though it sucks. Maybe this time the Titanic won’t sink, y’know? It’s all incredibly affecting stuff and beautifully done and so sad.
I’ll Cover You (Reprise)
Harden your heart. It’s not ready.
In Moulin Rouge, during the Spectacular Spectacular number where they’re pitching the hurriedly-improvised plot of their show to The Duke, he stops them at one point and asks, “and in the end, should someone die?” They ignore the question and double down on their pitching efforts. In the end, should someone die? Can’t we just ignore this nagging issue? I hate how it’s so often queer characters who end up killed off so that the remaining characters can learn some great lesson, yet I don’t count RENT in the same boat as like, a drama with one lesbian who exists for three episodes out of six seasons. (Indeed, in a song cut from the film, as I’ll talk about in a bit, Mark almost literally tells Roger that if he accepts love into his life Angel’s death won’t be in vain to which Roger spits back that it is in fact in vain, whatever the outcome.) I’m not actually sure where I’m going with this, I just feel like it should be noticed.
The night after Jonathan Larson died, the cast went ahead with the off-Broadway preview, at the request of his family. According to Jesse L Martin he was literally being held up by Adam Pascal by the end of this song. If you don’t feel something after watching it, I don’t know what to say to you.
And here’s where Christopher Columbus really did a number on this number. I can see why he cut out Mark’s solo Halloween, as it does state what we already know (despite another fine razorblades-in-the-syrup moment: “that’s poetic? That’s pathetic”) However! It’s genuinely such a waste to leave out this angry, dark song where Mark and Roger confront each other, asking the questions that most audience members themselves can’t help but ask (“Mark hides in his work. From what? From facing your failure, facing your loneliness…”) meaning we lose out on a TON of self-awareness that this musical, indeed any musical, can’t afford to let go of. (The aforementioned discussion of Angel’s death being in vain. “Is Roger really jealous, or afraid that Mimi’s weak?” “Mimi did look pale…”) Columbus was afraid the song would be an emotional overload, which is a weaksauce excuse. This is a musical where the comedy parody had the characters singing “everyone has AIDS! AIDS AIDS!” so yeah. This is a musical you’re making, not a Pinterest board. It’s overwroughty by nature.
We do get a snippet of it though. The funeral is over, and naturally, everyone’s fighting. Columbus can’t even get this right, choosing to zoom back while shooting their interactions so you don’t get any facial expression at all. Joanne and Mimi are mad at Maureen and Roger respectively for their lack of commitment, Roger fucks off to Santa Fe, Mimi is getting more and more ill and more afraid. And Benny’s there to pick up the pieces.
What You Own
It takes some moxie to rhyme “America” with “millenium”, and frankly I’m here for it. A small backstory that I haven’t touched on, is, spurred on by his footage of the post-Over The Moon riot, Mark has got a gig with a news show called Buzzline. Yep, he’s sold his soul to pay the rent. It’s hard to feel sympathetic towards him — pretty much all of us have to sell our soul in some way to pay rent and this is a solid gig using his skills. On the other hand, he really, really didn’t want to pay rent and maybe we should…respect that? Logic is a hard one by this point.
The jarring transition from the funeral to this song aside, let’s focus on how Roger and Mark are just not meant to fight so naturally they’re both having a miserable time far away from each other. Roger is straight up sucking as a musician in Santa Fe, while Mark is convinced he’s being wasted at this well-paying regular job. Roger eventually decides to come back: he loves Mimi, he’s going to finish his damn song that he started singing about back during One Song Glory, which ironically if it wasn’t him singing because it’s a musical as opposed to being an in-universe song, would be an ideal tune to hang your hat on. Mark decides to quit his job because he has to finish his damn powerpoint presentation.
I’m gonna give the movie major kudos (DING!) for brazenly putting Adam Pascal in a wind-flapped shirt on top of a cliff like he’s literally doing some kind of Bon Jovi cosplay, I don’t care if it’s laugh-out-loud funny in its own pomposity, it’s so pompous that it makes me love it unconditionally. Seriously, Adam Pascal is such a good sport when you think about it.
Finale A/Your Eyes.
A voicemail from Benny followed by a swirl of voicemails from everyone else confirms that Mimi is missing and has dropped out of rehab. We end this small montage with Roger asking the dealer who he yelled at if he’s seen Mimi which is a nice touch in terms of the effort he’s going to (ding.)
And suddenly it’s a year since the movie started. I mean, the plot of the movie. We’re all a little older and sadder. Collins is back in town and bursts through the door in a sad revisiting of his entrance before Today For You. He’s rewired an ATM to spit out money whenever you type in the code ANGEL! Let’s not examine the logic of this too deeply! The characters certainly don’t seem inclined to. Their reunion is interrupted by Maureen and Joanne, who have found Mimi huddled in the park, freezing cold.
Did I mention Adam Pascal is a good sport? Look. The creator of this musical died when the show was just starting Off-Broadway. Traditionally this is a time to allow the show to breathe, to see what works and what doesn’t in front of a paying audience, and to make changes. For better or for worse — I still maintain that Body Beautiful Beale should have stayed in the Broadway transfer of Grey Gardens but I’m not sure any other human on earth cares about this opinion. What I’m saying is, we’re dealing with a fantastic but raw, unformed show here. Had there been time for edits and tightening, who knows what could have happened. Pascal himself concedes, “Your Eyes is, in my opinion, an unfinished song. I was always a little disappointed that this song Roger is struggling to write throughout the entire show, to leave as his legacy, turns out to be this song. It seemed like kind of a letdown.” We’re all riiiiight here with you, buddy.
There’s an inherent, though dark, hilarity in the fact that Roger insists on singing to Mimi right at the point. Like, he’s actually singing in character. And yet, I get it, I guess? They’re on hold to the ambulance, they’ve got blankets, they’re all together, it’s literally a musical, what else are you going to do?
And yeah, it’s not the greatest song. You know it. I know it. I think even Roger knows it. But Pascal commits to the hilt, and it’s about the best we can hope for.
The stage show depiction of Mimi waking up is genuinely awkward (“I jumped over the Moon! A leap of — mooooooooo!” Like really. Wyd.) As such I’m grateful that for the film they just had her cough delicately and wake up. (Ding!)
Apparently Mimi was heading towards the light and then she saw Angel — “and she looked good” — who convinces her to turn around and “listen to that boy’s song.” Well, okay. They start up with “there’s only us, there’s only this” again and honestly, even though the last spoken dialogue is Maureen touching Mimi’s forehead and authoritatively saying “her fever’s breaking” like she’s a some kind of qualified doctor, I nevertheless start crying every time. Partway through, Mark pulls over his projector and plays his film which by this stage we’re all thoroughly aware is not going to change the world, but what we can say for sure is that it’s footage of his friends acting up plus the city around him and, like, it’s fine. You’ve made your stupid film but you also captured some special moments with your friends that you can never get back and who among us can say that it’s honestly not the worst use of your time.
We end with the final cry of “No day but today!” and close in on Angel’s face.
Christopher Columbus filmed an alternative ending where the characters are back on the stage they started on in Seasons of Love, and Angel walks out to join them for the final chorus. He scrapped it because he didn’t want to confuse the audience into thinking that Angel was still alive. I’m like. Christopher. WYD. It’s not that I necessarily would have preferred this ending, I see merit in both sides — there’s a lovely energy to the rapid-changing frames in Mark’s film as the characters watch it, but on the other hand having them return to the stage references how the number is performed in the original production. It brings Benny into the group again, it gives Angel a final moment, and it transports you back to that alternate timeline and reminds you completely that this is in fact a musical, it’s art and artifice at the same time, and here are these people singing about their feelings and it’s okay. Actually you know what? I would prefer this ending. Must you constantly disappoint me, Christopher Columbus?
Hold me closer, tiny moment: DID YOU KNOW that Robert Di “raging bull” Niro was an executive producer on this film? Did you know that the Special Effects Supervisor is called J.C Brotherhood which is the dopest name I’ve heard in some time? Did you know that the final frame of the film is “Thank You Jonathan Larson,” which refers to the first performance of the show after his death; once the applause had ceased there was a seemingly endless silence until an audience member shouted this out?
And so, here ends my essay that no-one was clamouring for yet which I insisted upon completing in puzzlingly exhaustive detail. I still don’t know why I was so compelled to write this, but along the way I learned a lot about what I will commit to, what Roger will commit to, and what noted inexusable weenie Christopher Columbus will commit to, and maybe, just maybe, that’s the true meaning of Christmas.