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How do you measure a year in the life? Rent review

Mary Squillace | Wednesday, November 30, 2005

“How do you measure a year in the life?”

The recently released “Rent,” which brings Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical from the stage to the screen, first poses then answers this question.

The film follows a year in the life of a group of struggling artists who live in New York City in the midst of their own AIDS epidemic. With an eclectic selection of music ranging from rock to salsa, “Rent” chronicles the joys and strifes of these young people, but ultimately conveys its underlying theme living life to the fullest.

But it’s possible that audiences will see two different movies depending on whether or not they have previously seen “Rent” performed onstage. For those who will receive their first glimpse of the critically acclaimed musical via the local movie theatre, “Rent” will not disappoint. The combined fortitude of catchy songs and a moving message make the movie unforgettable.

For those who have had prior exposure to “Rent” – and particularly for self-proclaimed “Rent-heads” – the film has a slightly different effect, as it certainly can’t embody the all of the various visions of its extensive fan base. Diehard fans will notice a few song omissions and might initially be thrown by the lines that are spoken instead of sung in the film. But for the most part, the film provides a solid adaptation, which is true to Jonathan Larson’s musical.

In fact, because the stage version is under a number of constraints – as the viewers are fairly removed from the action and only a number of locations can be portrayed – there are a number of opportunities for enhancing the show in its cinema version.

Through flashbacks and montage, the film is able to account for time and events that the play can only allude to. Additionally, director Chris Columbus (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) is creative with the locations that he shoots.

Many of his choices work well, such as the use of a subway car as the location for the playful song “Santa Fe,” and depicting Mimi’s solo “Out Tonight” as progression from her show at the Cat Scratch Club to her attempts to persuade Roger to take her out. But some of the Columbus’ vision seems out of place with the rest of the musical. In particular, a number that illustrates a heated lover’s quarrel between Maureen and Joanne takes place at a country club luncheon seems out of synch with the rest of the action that occurs in the gritty and boisterous city.

A treat for Rent-heads and “Rent” neophytes alike is Columbus’ idea to use most of the original cast members for the movie. In doing this, he has not only avoided a potentially sub-par performance, but has given fans an opportunity to see the original cast recording come to life long after they’ve left Broadway.

While most of the cast has earned notoriety in the Broadway realm, people who are unfamiliar with the original cast will probably recognize the faces of Jesse L. Martin (Law and Order) and Taye Diggs (How Stella Got Her Groove Back).

Newcomers to the cast are Rosario Dawson, who plays Mimi, and Tracie Thoms, who plays Joanne. Thoms is a perfect fit with the original cast and delivers in-full with her powerful voice. Dawson’s vocals aren’t as strong and lack the uniqueness of the original Mimi, but she still manages to turn-out a compelling and emotional performance.

Together, the cast is truly explosive. The ensemble numbers range from being outrageously hilarious, to chill-inducing with the emotion they’re able to convey through their collective voices.

As a result, the film is worth taking 135 of this year’s 525,600 minutes to watch.