Last weekend, I went to see the new movie version of Rent. I went with Mike, a boy I dated this summer immediately after breaking up with my boyfriend. (In truth, I started dating him immediately before breaking up with my boyfriend, but that is, as they say, another story.) Mike’s best friend knew my best friend, there was a Pirate Party, there were many mojitos, in his costume he reminded me of Rufio in Hook…such are the ingredients, friends, that lead to ill-advised hook-ups. And, if your name is Zack Woolfe, ill-advised hook-ups lead, without fail, to ill-advised pseudo-relationships. Mike was no exception. There was happiness, awkwardness, guilt. There was callousness on both sides. (OK, just on his side, but who’s counting?) There was the pesky failure of the pseudo-relationship to end when the summer did. There was my trip to visit him at Wesleyan over Fall Break. There was my masochistic tendency to keep up contact with him, to reply to his drunken text messages, to send drunken text messages of my own, to agree to see Rent with him over Thanksgiving weekend. So emotionally damaging and embarrassing was all of this, so much have my friends grown to despise Mike’s very name, that when my best friend asked about the movie, I reflexively lied and said that I’d seen it with my brother.
Which brings me to Rent. Well, it doesn’t exactly bring me to Rent, but these were the thoughts going through my head as I sat next to Mike in the Loews movie theater at Union Square. We were surrounded, it seemed, by every 18-to-45-year-old gay male in Manhattan. I felt sort of bitter to be hanging out with Mike, but sort of unable to resist doing so. It was funny to be thinking about our whole painful debacle—CRAZY GAY GUYS doing CRAZY GAY THINGS like sleeping around and cheating on our significant others—while watching Rent, of all things. The movie, like the play, is immensely self-congratulatory about its “edge,” and specifically its “queerness,” its portrayal of just these kinds of crazy gay things. I found it funny, because it made me wonder how much of the way I know how to act in gay relationships (and pseudo-relationships) was learned from Rent in the first place.
When the Broadway production first opened in early 1996, it was immediately popular with high school social circles far beyond the usual musical theater crowd—jocks, nerds, and just about everyone else. Looking back, I find Rent’s swift and comprehensive popularity strange because the show was so extremely, unavoidably queer. Here, for a change, were gay characters being, well, gay: girls leaving boys for girls; boys dressing up as girls; Black, White, Puerto Rican, Chinese gays. All of these things were quite a shock at the time, especially for those among us who were just starting to articulate—even if only to ourselves, even if only silently—certain truths that we would admit for the first time years later. Rent was, in a real way, the introduction to all the crazy gay things we’d never been exposed to in our Long Island school district, which had nary an openly gay student at the high school. Angels in America was far more innovative, of course, a good few years before Rent, but middle schools weren’t taking school trips to see Angels, whereas the first time I saw Rent was with my fellow Lawrence Middle School seventh graders. I think I might have sat next to Jana Posner. Maybe not. In any case, I was now sitting next to Mike, and the stuff on the screen was far more recognizable, far more reminiscent of things I’d actually done and felt, than when I’d seen the original production.
It says something, something not so good, about the movie that, despite this increased personal relevance, Rent mattered much less to me the other night than it did nine years ago. Like anyone who was in middle school or high school in 1996, when the double-CD soundtrack circulated constantly, I feel a weird sense of ownership over the play, even though I was never as into it as some of my friends. In fact, I never particularly liked it, though there are moments that always have been, and remain, utterly exhilarating. As I sat in the movie theater, the way I felt about Rent mirrored the way I felt about Mike: sort of bitter, maybe even a little nauseous, but unable to resist those moments of real excitement and joy.
The failures of the movie aren’t failures of devotion to the play; the people I’ve spoken to who really, truly love Rent uniformly love the movie. Very little is cut, and the rest is done pretty much as written. The movie even opens with a rendition of “Seasons of Love” that has the cast on stage, singing to an empty theater, as a kind of preemptive admission that the stage production will always be definitive. Chris Columbus, the director, knows what it’s like to have to deal with source material passionately protected by its fans, having done the first Harry Potter film. Columbus’s decision to use the original cast defines the project, and it was a brave choice. After all, it was the cast that always made Rent work, if it worked at all. Even when the songs were empty anthems, rising to an emotional fever pitch almost immediately after they began, the performances were almost superhuman in their energy and commitment. I still remember Wilson Jermaine Heredia throwing himself all over the stage during “Today 4 U.” “One Song Glory” has since become a popular audition piece for boys with rock tenor voices that are uniformly taxed by its difficulties, but Adam Pascal treated the unwieldy, oddly paced song like it was the most profound description of passion and frustration ever written, and for three or four minutes you believed him.
There must have been a lot of pressure to entertain the reported interest in the project of pop stars like Justin Timberlake; while Adam Pascal is hardly a nobody in the world of musical theater, he’s no Justin. So I have a lot of respect for whoever is responsible for rehiring Pascal, Heredia, and the rest (minus Daphne Rubin-Vega, who has been replaced as Mimi by the game but uninteresting Rosario Dawson, and Fredi Walker, replaced as Joanne by the similarly uninspiring Tracie Thoms). I have no doubt that it would have been a worse movie without them. But the performances feel older, paler. Though the actors throw themselves into their parts with some of the energy I remember, they are plainly, unavoidably in their mid-thirties instead of their mid-twenties. I felt kind of morbid watching the same actors, ten years later, donning the same costumes, hurling themselves into the same choreographic contortions. During “La Vie Boheme,” Anthony Rapp as Mark seems sillier than he did back in the day; indeed, a lot that was exciting or moving on stage now feels faintly embarrassing. I mean, this is still their material, and Adam Pascal still pulls off “One Song Glory” like no one else, but there’s not the same “ping” in his voice, and the complicated flashback sequence that Columbus inserts during the song robs it of much of its power. This isn’t the only time the literalism possible in film undermines the material instead of enhancing it; Columbus creates a fashionably bohemian East Village, though the film was mostly shot in San Francisco, but there was an abstract, workshop-y quality to the stage set that was much more effective in letting the performances speak for themselves, which is ultimately what you want from Rent.
Now that the performances aren’t quite what they once were, though, you’re left with the content, which was never the show’s strong suit. It’s nothing new to criticize Rent’s naivete, its clichéd “no day but today” moral, its depiction of an East Village bohemianism that was always a fantasy, as false as the Paris of Puccini’s opera. Its scrappy faux-socialism was always ridiculous; yeah, you are what you own in America at the end of the millenium, but, then again, people everywhere have always been defined by what they owned. The one unique thing that America in the mid-nineties did have was AIDS. And for people our age, members of the first generation born after the epidemic began, Rent was the first real exposure to characters who had it. But the show’s relationship to AIDS feels strange and dated at a time when gay marriage is the divisive issue both within and without the queer community, when the fight against AIDS is quaintly unifying. When Collins seizes a piece of chalk during “La Vie Boheme,” you expect him to write something really incendiary on the bar’s menu board. Instead, he passionately scrawls, “FIGHT AIDS!,” and the effect is unintentionally humorous rather than galvanizing. Rent in 2005 is less like ACT UP’s bold and confrontational art projects of the 80s and more like the AIDS Quilt; how could any feeling person oppose either’s resolutely optimistic but vaguely irrelevant aesthetic?
It’s hardly the responsibility of a musical to lead a political movement, but the publicity surrounding the movie’s release has placed the show at the center of the AIDS battle, as a brave vehicle for an innovative political agenda. The November 8 issue of The Advocate praises the “gritty, hyperreal” movie for “making AIDS urgent for a vulnerable new generation.” In reality, though, there’s very little that’s not essentially conservative about Rent. In that same Advocate, Wilson Jermaine Heredia says that the death of his character, Angel, “is not pretty…It’s real.” But, in the end, he dies the same prettified death that AIDS sufferers are traditionally given in film; it looks just like a bad case of cancer, no different than in Stepmom, plus a few obligatory Karposi’s sarcoma lesions. The Life Support rap group scenes feel more prominent in the film than they did on stage, but they’ve also been somewhat de-clawed. In the original show, one of the patients in the group fights back against the chants of “no day but today” that comprise the majority of the group meetings, claiming that his low T-cell count doesn’t make him exactly receptive to that feel-good maxim. In the movie, this scene has been subtly changed so that the same patient’s complaint about his T-cells attests to the strength of “no day but today” rather than to its inefficacy.
I’m still put off by the spectacle of the saintly, oh-so-gay Angel dying so that the rest of the characters can finally learn to value their own lives and loves more dearly, and specifically so that the central, heterosexual love plot is able to continue on into an endless, seemingly disease-free futurity. (Roger and Mimi are left looking healthy at the end, apparently cured by the drugs that are, for some reason, never offered to Angel.) And why is the last shot of both Mark’s movie-within-a-movie and the movie itself a shot of Angel as a man, sans makeup and wig, when the show has worked so diligently and ostentatiously to define “her” as a “she”? Lurking behind the show’s apparently open-minded, open-armed acceptance of and enthusiasm about queerness may be more traditional, normalizing attitudes. Just because it introduced us to all those “crazy gay things,” just because it seems to embrace them, doesn’t mean that Rent has any kind of enlightened perspective on what it means to be gay. The same thing, I suppose, could be said of Mike and me, who talk endlessly, with impressive theoretical references, about constructions of queerness and the queer movement, without any idea about how to be queer people, how to have happier—let alone happy—relationships, how to square “doing crazy gay things” with “living a life.” We glanced at each other throughout the movie, chuckling at the campy parts and otherwise demonstrating our superiority over the vast majority of the audience, which sat for two and a half hours in rapt silence and wept openly at the end.