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Rent script review
"To people living with, not dying from disease."
Hollyfeld, here. It never ceases to piss me off that Hollywood has a dearth of quality scripts to choose from, and yet somehow the worst of it often makes its way to the screen. One of the more quality projects to suddenly find its way to Development Hell is Rent, the adaptation of Jonathon Larson's stage musical of the same name. Both the original musical and its screenplay adaptation, the first draft of which by Stephen Chbosky I am reviewing today, are bittersweet tales of the modern Bohemian lifestyle in New York, focusing on the everyday struggle of the characters to express themselves artistically whilst balancing the more complicated issues they deal with every day - from homelessness, to heartbreak, to HIV.
The original stage production is considered a modern masterpiece of musical theater, but for all its inspiration, entertainment and indeed importance, there are moments when I find the story overly blunt. This, of course, comes part and parcel with its very nature - musicals have a natural tendency to tell their stories in broad strokes so as to constantly stimulate the audience while still keeping those in the back of the theater interested. The recent Moulin Rouge is a perfect example of creating a film version of a theatrical musical, albeit one that did not previously exist - not a subtle moment in the entire film. However, unlike Rouge, the story of Rent is one with both social significance and, in spite of the recurrence of characters breaking into song, realism.
Rent tells the deceptively complex story of a group of modern Bohemians living in early 90s New York. Mark and Roger, the latter of whom is HIV positive, live in a loft owned by their ex-roommate, Benny, who once promised to let them live there rent-free. A year afterwards, however, he asks them for a years worth of back rent - Mark, a failed filmmaker, and Roger, a failed musician, are unable to make ends meet. Mark may be in the middle of his documentary of real New York life, but may also have to sell out to pay the bills. Roger, who is desperately trying to write one great song before he dies, finds himself falling in love with another HIV sufferer, Mimi, a stripper with a drug habit. Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen is busy with her performance art protests against mistreatment of the homeless and the end of Bohemia, and is currently taking advantage of her new girlfriend, Joanne, much in the same way as she did her ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, mutual friend and anarchist Tom Collins and his drag queen boyfriend Angel are living and loving whilst also carrying the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus. The film's camera mimics Mark's, as we watch the joys and tragedies befalling his friends, because it is entirely likely that both he and the audience are going to far outlive many of these characters we have come to love.
This draft of Rent miraculously maintains both the story and soul of its source material while at the same time making the story more palatable to the screen. It simultaneously makes elements of Rent grander by expanding the story's canvas, from the stage to the whole of New York, while making subtler some of the stronger elements of the plotline through use of different storytelling techniques. Some of these techniques are very simple - expanding the duration of the musical's plotline, eliminating some of the more conversational songs in favor of simply speaking their lyrics as dialogue, and recurring montages ingeniously showing how characters are evolving through the nuances of their actions, not words or music.
Part of the restructuring involves an opening sequence portraying the salad days of the cast of characters - Roger is an up and coming singer/songwriter, Mark is a promising young filmmaker who has just met Maureen, Tom Collins is headed to MIT, and Benny has just married into money. He promises to be the group's benefactor before they part each other's company. Maureen and Mark go off to have lots and lots of sex, Benny returns home to his wife, Collins goes off to school, and Roger returns home to find a note from his girlfriend: "We've got AIDS." Her body is in the bathtub, wrists slit. This sequence is alluded to, not shown in the production, and while it may be the only weak portion of the script, it could easily have been fixed by shooting. It becomes an important part of the plotline, establishing how great things were before they got so much worse.
Most of the other notable changes result from changing the order and context of the production's musical numbers. "Rent," the title song, remains at the beginning of the story, but instead of being an expression of desperation it remains simply a rock-out song written by rising star Roger - "Seasons of Love," originally opening the second act, comes next, symbolizing all the things that occur within a year. Specifically, it refers to the year in which the group's youthful ideals, in some way or another, fall apart. "Out Tonight," once an invitation to a date, becomes a playful striptease by both Mimi AND Angel for their respective lovers, and "Light My Candle," detailing the first encounter between Roger and Mimi, is performed without music, it's lyrics, sans chorus, effortlessly becoming crackling dialogue with almost no changes to speak of. Other numbers, like "Tango: Maureen" and "Santa Fe" make the transition with almost no alteration at all, whilst Maureen's almost ludicrous (for the screen, not the stage) "Over the Moon" monologue is deleted, though alluded to, in favor of a reworked "La Vie Boheme." Whereas in the musical production "La Vie Boheme" exists as an ironic dinnertime rebellion against the notion that Maureen's protest against mistreatment of the homeless was futile, becomes the protest itself. The song becomes a celebration of everything there is in New York that is necessary to preserve, giving even the most cynical person (be they a character in the play, reader of the script or future audience member) a reason to care about the other characters' lives and artwork. Clearly designed to be the film's centerpiece, it is a testament to the quality of the screenplay that there is no suspension of belief necessary when the protest turns into a veritable riot.
The big-screen production of Rent fell apart due to budgetary problems barely a week ago - it was set to be directed by Spike Lee, one of the few directors who could have conceivably done the concept justice. This decision on the studio's part is nothing if not shameful. This draft of Rent, the first one no less, is easily the best dramatic screenplay I have read in a long time, able to be both real, fantastical, personal and epic at the same time. I also feel sorry for a generation of young moviegoers who would not be caught dead at a musical theater production, but who would have easily connected with the big-screen production. This universal story of young artists destined to be cut down in their prime unfortunately echoes the state of Rent's production - a film whose potential was squandered by the establishment before it had a chance to prove its greatness.
(Review submitted by 'Hollyfeld.')[an error occurred while processing this directive]
That's all folks...
Jean-François Allaire (aka DeadPool)
Questions, comments, praise etc. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jean-François Allaire is TNMC's first columnist. At only 24 years old he has become a respected entertainment journalist, with his columns appearing in Corona's Coming Attractions and Scr(i)pt magazine. He also writes a monthly column in Screenwriters Monthly entitled 'The Last Word.' Hailing from Montreal this young writer is determined to dig up all the details on the movies before they hit your local theater. If you're part of a movie production then you really need to be talking to him.