Rent

Rent (2005)

For some reason this was about the only musical I didn’t watch or listen to when writing FB:L4G.  I think I was too busy wrestling with Steven Sondheim and trying to decide if Evita was any good. Well, I finally watched it*, and I can see why opinion is divided** over Generation X’s very own musical. The plot (loosely based on La bohème) is admirably complex for a musical, but like any project emerging from New York since, well, ever, it’s also utterly self-absorbed and hermetic.

The outside world consists of golden Santa Fe and the small midwestern towns everyone has escaped from – there’s no Southern Hemisphere, no Africa, no Europe, no Asia… the world of the musical is by definition a constructed world, but some of the best musicals have an unstoppable force advancing on their world from outside. Fascism enters the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret, antisemitism scatters the family of Fiddler on the Roof, the Vietnam War looms over the hippies of Hair. The unstoppable force in Rent is AIDS, not an external but an internal threat which attacks each individual at its own pace. Subsequently the focus of the conflict is personal and narcissistic.

The characters of Rent are youthful bohemians (some with super-rich parents) living in squalor for the sake of their world-changing Art. I’m afraid that the examples given of said Art were definitely not worth leaving their hometown and contracting HIV for. Most of the film’s actors were also in the original 1996 Broadway production, which is casting with integrity, although it’s an entirely different proposition to be a struggling bohemian determined not to sell out or compromise your artistic integrity at the age of 34, than at 25. One is rather less pathetic than the other.

Fortunately, like most issues of logic to be found in musicals, this is only a problem if you think about it too hard.

It’s mawkish and often nakedly pretentious (the only time New York and the rest of America gave a damn about what the other was up to was in 2001) but numbers like ‘Santa Fe’ and ‘Goodbye Love’ are straightforward and quite good, without the bombast of, say, Les Misérables, or the running-up-and-down-the-scales-ness (I forget what the proper term for that is – possibly ‘Webberosity’) of Andrew Lloyd Webber. In the bitter ‘What You Own’ it’s revealed that the real enemy is selling out, working hard, making money and – wait, what?

What else are we supposed to do, die nobly in garrets of tuberculosis?

* Nearly six years after the film was made, which is fifteen years after it was set, twelve years after it was written, and nine years after it appeared on Broadway and won a freakin’ Pulitzer. If the film had been made eight years earlier, it would’ve been a bit more relevant.
**One of the rants on the inevitable and hilarious TV Tropes page dedicated to Rent: “Why exactly are we supposed to care about any of these fucking whiny, self-absorbed people with holier-than-thou attitudes?” They may have a point.
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2 Responses to “Rent”

  1. David Thomsen Says:

    “…like any project emerging from New York since, well, ever, it’s also utterly self-absorbed and hermetic.”

    Reminds me of Shortbus. There are other groups of sexually experimental people in the world, but only those in New York would make a film about how special they are.

  2. Only those in New York are pretty enough to want to watch!
    Plus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch FTW.

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