It’s probably impossible to separate “Rent” the musical from “Rent” the tragic backstory. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As everyone knows, nine years ago — that’s 4,730,400 minutes for you “Rent”-heads — the show premiered Off-Broadway the day after its creator died unexpectedly at the age of 35. Now that “Rent” is a movie, the tragedy hits home in a new way, not just because it’s one more thing Larson didn’t live to see his creation become but because while watching it, you can’t help thinking that if he’d lived, he would’ve written at least 2 or 3 better shows by now.

As anyone who really loves “Rent” knows — and I’m not talking about the people who’ve seen it nine hundred times, as obsession is very different from love, which allows you to see something’s flaws — the show is a mess. It’s poorly plotted, has more than a few clunky lyrics (Every time I hear “I think they meant it/ When they said you can’t buy love/ Now I know you can rent it/ A new lease you are, my love… on life!”, I cringe a little) and isn’t exactly clear on just what it wants to say.

What “Rent” the movie does right is understanding that at its core, the show is about the notion of family and how in some ways, the truest family isn’t the one we’re born into as children but the one we cobble together for ourselves when we become adults. The first time I got choked up during the movie was in the opening scene, which features original cast members from the show belting out “Rent”‘s signature song “Seasons of Love” on an otherwise empty stage. It’s not just because the song is absolutely gorgeous, the “525,600 minutes” refrain making it the world’s first gospel song for the obsessive compulsive. It’s because seeing the original cast members reunited as their old characters shows you what else the show created, making a family of sorts out of its actors — you know, except for the two who got canned.

There’s something really heartwarming about seeing 6 of the 8 original cast members back together again, but after watching the movie, I think there’s at least one more role they should’ve recast. They’re all good singers, and when you were in row J of the second balcony, that’s all that mattered. But the unforgiving close-ups of a camera lens point out the vast differences in acting ability among 1996’s most celebrated ensemble. Adam Pascal comes off as especially weak, focusing entirely on the brooding aspect of his rock star character and forgetting that he’s supposed to be a man in love. One of “Rent”‘s biggest flaws has always been that the song Pascal’s character, Roger, sings about not being able to write a great song is infinitely better than the song he eventually writes, a generic power ballad which is supposed to make us think that his writer’s block has been broken. It doesn’t help that Pascal sings that final-act love song, “Your Eyes”, as if he’s taking part in a hostage video rather than confessing his love to a woman he nearly lost.

Poor Rosario Dawson has to share almost every scene with Pascal, and he barely ever looks at her. At least she has her character’s drug addiction to give her some fulfillment as an actress. I’m sure at some point, the studio suggested filling Pascal’s role with an actual rock star like Adam Levine or Jesse McCartney, and somebody fought to keep Pascal instead. It’s the one note on which the nostalgia factor hurt the film. Sure, it would’ve been cheesy to see Ryan Cabrera or someone like that alongside the rest of the cast, but he couldn’t have been any worse as an actor, and at least he’s used to singing songs as terrible as “Your Eyes”.

On the other hand, the best of the “Rent” bunch by far is Jesse L. Martin. Martin is bursting with charisma every time he’s on screen, and with the possible exceptions of Dawson and Idina Menzel, he’s the only one who ever seems to be having any fun. That’s not to say he doesn’t have the dramatic chops his role requires, just that he understands that a character can go through extreme pain and still have a soul. He succeeds exactly where Pascal fails, in making us believe that he’s in love, with the world’s worst drag queen, no less. And his big song, “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” is the movie’s highlight.

I’ve never hated Chris Columbus the way some people have. He could make a hundred bad films, and I’ll still be grateful that he brought “Home Alone” to the world. (If that says more than you wanted to know about my taste in films, so be it.) As the director of “Rent”, he makes a lot of good choices, like cutting some of the show’s worst songs (If only he’d spared us “Today 4 U” as well, I’d say he should get an Oscar) and translating the sung-through transitions into spoken dialogue, which worked surprisingly well. And he even makes some of the mediocre songs, like “Tango:Maureen”, better with some clever staging.

Still, I wish he’d shown more imagination with a few of the production numbers. As entertaining as it is to see Jesse L. Martin doing calisthenics on a subway car during “Santa Fe”, wouldn’t it have been more fun to dissolve to a dream sequence of his fantasy coming true? There he is, with his Vegan Cafe/Philosophy Reading Room nestled in among the gun shops and barbeque pits of Main Street Santa Fe. Meanwhile, Angel sings a torch song in some roughneck bar down the street for a bunch of cowboys who don’t realize she’s a man… until she leaves the stage and touches up her makeup in the men’s room. And then, we come back to Jesse L. doing backflips on the F train. Now, that’s how a movie musical’s supposed to be.

Some of the reviews I’ve read have rather nastily attacked the movie for presenting a phony, antiseptic version of bohemia. My main problem with the movie, you could say, is that it wasn’t phony enough. It would’ve been nice to see more surreal moments of movie musical magic like in “Tango:Maureen”. Musicals by their very nature are fantasies, and the best musicals realize that. Once you have characters spontaneously breaking into song, you earn the poetic license to make them a little cartoonish. The audience knows what they’re getting going in, and nobody expects “Rent” to be “Panic in Needle Park”, the same way no one left “Chicago” thinking that women actually sing and dance on Death Row.

Another minor quibble: whoever decided to set the story in 1989 created at least one anachronism, since “Thelma & Louise”, which is referenced in a song lyric, wasn’t released until 1991.

But what makes “Rent” worth seeing, and remembering… and seeing again, is those songs. I don’t mean all of them, but I mean the more-than-half of them that are absolutely stunning. “Seasons of Love”, “I’ll Cover You” (and its reprise), “Santa Fe”, “Take Me or Leave Me”, “Rent”, “La Vie Boheme”, “What You Own”, “One Song Glory”, “Will I?”. “Rent” has more pure showstoppers than just about any musical I can think of, each one both insanely catchy and deeply moving. It’s the work of an extremely talented guy who had a deep connection to and love for his subject matter. “Rent” isn’t perfect, but genius rarely is.

During the movie’s finale, which features another great song, the characters attempt to crystallize the movie’s message with lines like “There’s only now/ There’s only here/ Give in to love/ Or live in fear”. Whether or not you’ll swallow those lyrics comes down to how the actors sell them, and it’s telling that Jesse L. Martin seems to be the only one who’s smiling. It’s a shame the other actors don’t seem to realize — or weren’t directed to express — that they’re singing a song about hope. After nine years of riding the “Rent” train, it’s the last moment they’ll ever play these characters, and it would’ve been nice to know that they’d enjoyed their trip, to see them hugging and making eye contact and such, instead of staring into space as if struggling to convey some really heavy message to the cosmos about What The Audience Should Take Home With Them. I think this was the movie’s biggest mistake, and it’s the reason “Rent” is ultimately not about hope, as it so desperately wants to be, but merely about loss. And lost opportunity.

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