reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, December 19, 2005


In a brilliant career move, the unknown and impoverished stage composer Jonathan Larson dropped dead at the age of 35 on the day before his musical "Rent" opened in 1996. Adding to the subsequent tidal wave of media hype, his death occurred on almost exactly the 100th anniversary of the opera upon which "Rent's" plot was based, La Bohème.

While Puccini's tragic tale of starving artists and their consumptive lovers was a nostalgia piece set in Paris during the Romantic rebellion of the 1830s, "Rent" is a self-congratulatory celebration of a contemporary surrogate family of AIDS-ridden downtown Manhattan songwriters, drag queens, and lesbian performance artists engaged in the eternal bohemian struggle épater le bourgeois. Unshocked, the bourgeoisie have made "Rent" the eighth longest running musical in Broadway history, where it's still chugging along in its tenth year, with ticket prices running up to $100.

Director Chris Columbus has now crafted a relatively faithful film version employing most of the original cast (who, like the rest of us, are no longer as fresh-faced and appealing as they were in 1996).

To widespread surprise, it turned out that Larson hadn't died of AIDS, but of a freak aortic aneurysm. Larson was that increasing rarity, a straight Broadway composer. He was a nice Jewish boy from Westchester Co. who wanted to "revolutionize" the musical by making it relevant to today's young people by featuring the kind of music the kids are listening to on the street … well, to be precise, the kind of 1970s electric guitar rock that Larson had listened to as a teenager in his White Plains bedroom.

In "Rent," Larson's alter ego, the nerdy narrator Mark (played by Anthony Rapp, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Wilbur in "Mr. Ed") is an experimental filmmaker. He squats in a grungy Alphabet City loft with Larson's romantic image of himself, cute Roger (Adam Pascal, who looks like Dana Carvey playing Garth Algar in "Wayne's World"), an ex-junkie rock guitarist with AIDS.

The two heterosexual white guys have all these cool minority friends! Indeed, "Rent" functions as a sensitive liberal male's wish-fulfillment fantasy about a new and improved form of diversity. Hanging with diverse pals demonstrates your moral superiority over other Caucasians, but, frustratingly for young white social climbers, actual live minorities are seldom content to play their assigned roles as silent props in your fashionable lifestyle. In particular, real black friends might insist on playing their hideous rap music and real gay friends their sissy disco music. In "Rent," however, the diverse trendsetters all like 1970s white boy rock, thus validating Mark's and Roger's hipness quotients.

Although there have been some popular musicals like "Grease" and "Little Shop of Horrors" that use 1950s rock 'n' roll, the later, louder rock styles haven't been employed much in musicals as Broadway retreats evermore into its gay ghetto.

Also, as "Rent" illustrates, roaring guitars make showtune lyrics hard to follow. The more the actors try to enunciate clearly enough to be understood, the less they sound like genuine rock singers.

"Rent's" lyrics aren't much worth following, anyway. "Seasons of Love," for example, opens the movie version with perhaps the most ponderously inane first line in musical history: "525,600 minutes" (the number of minutes in a year, in case you were wondering, which you probably weren't).

"Rent's" mediocrity is thorough. The lyrics are lame and the melodies forgettable. As a songwriter, Larson tried too hard without working hard enough. Even the fictional brilliance of the characters is underwhelming. The last great song the doomed guitarist spends a year composing turns out to be as generic as the rest, while the avant-garde auteur's cinematic breakthrough is home movies of his friends partying.

(Where does talent go these days? Into videogames? Movie trailers? Marketing tie-ins? Talking points?)

Modern bohemians can't generate the I'll-show-them aggression needed to create the truly new and worthwhile when everybody within 50 miles of East Greenwich Village lavishly lauds "transgressive" artists. With the wind at their back, it's hardly surprising they're coasting. No wonder creativity in this country is in decline -- tolerance is sapping the artistic urge. As Jacques Barzun wrote, "A movement in thought or art produces its best work during the uphill fight to oust the enemy … Victory brings on imitation and ultimately Boredom."

Boredom with a capital B sums up "Rent."

Rated a hard PG-13 for mature thematic material involving drugs and sexuality, and for some strong language.


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