Live stage musicals have a reputation for translating poorly to the screen. Rent is no exception. The original off-Broadway play was written by Jonathan Larson and went on to win Pulitzer and Tony Awards. Steve Chbosky turned it into a screenplay and Chris Columbus directed the film version. It may be said that committing Rent to film has created a historical record which captures the essence of the early years of AIDS, an epoch-altering moment in time. And it may be said that Rent the film also inspires cringingly painful comparisons to Hair the film.
In Rent a group of friends bond together into a family,struggling as young artists to find themselves personally and artistically. Poignant immediacy is invoked by the knowledge that some of them are also expecting to die from AIDS at any time. An artistic statement typical of its time, Rent today comes across as full of maudlin sentimentality and cliches of bohemian life. The brutal realities of race and class warfare in American society (New York City’s East Village circa 1989) that the film dramatizes come across as melodrama.
Rent distinguishes itself from most other first-wave AIDS art primarily in that it is not set inside a stereotypically gay ("urban middle-class white male") ghetto, where the AIDS pandemic first struck in America. (Most of the early artistic output in response to AIDS, including Rent, proved to be highly polemical and aesthetically negligible, and has, for the most part, faded from collective historical memory.) During the 1980s the gay cutting edge of bohemian New York shifted away (because priced out) from the West Village and morphed with the more sexually and ethnically diverse bohemian scene of the East Village and its fringes in Alphabet City (on the Lower East Side).
Rent’s bohemian family is a checklist of queer diversity – an African-American dancer "Tom" Collins (Jesse L. Martin), his lover the Latino drag queen/performance artist Angel (Wilson Germaine Heredia), the Jewish film maker Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp), his ex-girlfriend-turned-lesbian/bisexual punk performance artist rebelling against her well-off parents Maureen (Idina Menzel), and her girlfriend the Ivy-educated lawyer of even richer, black parents Joanne (Tracie Thoms). White-as-a-West-Coast-rock-band Roger (Adam Pascal) is an aspiring song writer who becomes hopelessly enmeshed with the Latina "exotic dancer"/street hooker and heroin addict, Mimi (Rosario Dawson). And rounding out the family is Benny (Taye Diggs), the (heterosexual) African-American ex-roommate who ditched the bohemian collective-in-a-warehouse to marry the landlord’s daughter and whose battle with his ex-friends to evict them (on Christmas Eve no less) serves as the basic dramatic conflict. To make matters worse, the story would seem to call for a subtle use of acting and cinematographic techniques to convey the bohemian "authenticity" its original creators so obviously believed in. Instead, the nearly nonstop, opera-like deployment of unmemorable, unmelodic, lip-synched songs exacerbates the undeniable fact that the play is a fictional contrivance.
In Rent all the characters struggle, with varying degrees of self-awareness, realizing that their youthful rebellion is as much about that adolescent rite of passage, becoming independent from parents, as it is about rediscovering the truth of the world. The latter will, of necessity, lead to "selling out," as the musical’s title drives home – everyone seems to realize that rent has to be paid eventually, one way or another. What would seem to set Rent apart from its bohemian antecedents is the added dimension of the unfair and cruel taskmaster of AIDS. And yet, even this is the stuff of the first myth of Bohemia – true artists suffer nobly and often die prematurely, mostly from consumption or some icky sexually transmitted disease, or poverty, or lack of recognition or enough commercial success to pay the rent and put food on the table.
Since its inception in the early nineteenth century, the rallying cry of artistic Bohemia has been authenticity and individuality and suffering nobly, in the name of artistic creation (or the other way around). Just as important to the bohemian aesthetic is taking a political stand, through one’s art and one’s chosen lifestyle as "bohemian artist." Every generation of bohemians has rebelled against the ruling class, its power structure, its moral values and artistic tastes, its perceived hypocrisy or, in the immortal word of Holden Caufield, "phoniness."
Rent, the film, regrettably enough, is no longer avant-garde. And The Band Played On (based on the nonfiction book ) stands as the seminal first-wave AIDS film and Angels in America (based on the Broadway play) as the seminal second-wave AIDS film. Avant-garde (or "cutting-edge") pop music was already taking a turn toward hip-hop when Rent was still a play. And the film musical took an interesting postmodern turn, with the hugely successful Moulin Rouge. (Baz Lurhmann’s film wallows in and reworks the original Bohemia material – artist-outcasts making revolutionary art, nobly suffering through the tragic-redemptive powers of Romantic love and dying prematurely, after enjoying way too much "sex and drugs and rock-and-roll" in Montmartre.) As one clever tongue has wagged, all too often today’s avant-garde becomes tomorrow’s kitsch. And kitsch, without the levity of a camp sensibility, can be deadly.