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Rent Review

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Struggling artists in New York’s East Village unite against former friend-turned-yuppie landlord Benny (Diggs). Philosopher Collins (Martin) meets soulmate drag queen Angel (Heredia), filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) loses Maureen (Idina Menzel) to another w

★★★★★

Cards on the table: rock operas pretty much suck except for Tommy, which knows it’s mad. It’s the sung dialogue between proper songs that does us in. In classical opera they get away with it — it’s melodic, it rhymes, and it’s preferably in a foreign language. But when a contemporary character tra-las, “You promised you’d be cool!” or, “Have you got a light?”, the word that comes to mind is ‘ick’.

Inspired by Puccini’s La Bohème (impoverished Parisian artists with tuberculosis), this landmark Broadway musical (impoverished Manhattan artists with AIDS) won every award going, including multiple Tonys and the coveted Pulitzer Prize. Adding to its legend, Rent’s author, composer and lyricist, Jonathan Larson, died on the eve of previews, a loss that intensely bonded its cast as the tightly-knit friends and lovers sharing poverty, passion, eviction, addiction, performance art, illness and a rent strike over the course of one year (the show opened in 1996 but is set firmly in 1989).

Most of that cast have been reunited for the film, most famously Diggs (whose role is unfortunately the briefest) and Martin (Law & Order’s Detective Green), with excellent new recruits Dawson as tragic Mimi and Thoms as lesbian lawyer Joanne. While this makes a Rent buff’s heaven-sent souvenir of record (it’s a rare chance, for example, to enjoy the supercharged vocalising of Diggs’ wife Idina Menzel, a big star on Broadway), the downside is that the Fame-like vivacity — dancing atop tables and through traffic features — is a tad incongruous since the cast are nearly all closer to 40 than 18.

Columbus’ direction and the adaptation from intimate grunge musical theatre to screen spectacle comes out a curate’s egg: every time a set-piece number lifts proceedings — Dawson’s sizzling Out Tonight, Martin’s moving, gospel-flavoured lament at a funeral — the mood immediately crumbles with a toe-curling interlude.

By the time it reaches its big emotional climax, Mimi’s laboured breathing invites giggles in the stalls. The production also suffers from ‘Hair syndrome’; it comes to the screen far too late to capitalise on its fame for originality and impact. Producers were unable to secure film finance for nearly a decade, during which time elements like the gay pride and AIDS support group themes have been, done and moved on.

Given that Chicago is the only movie musical in years to have made a significant profit, it’s unlikely many will give this ragged rock revue a second glance, despite pleasing moments and fiercely committed performances.