With last year's Annie movie getting skewered by the critics, it's always a good time to think about other movie adaptations of musicals that didn't go as well as the fan base was hoping for. One that sticks out in my mind in particular was the movie version of RENT.
When I was young, my family had a small cabin in VT that we would spend long winter weekends at. I had just gotten my license, so I had the great joy of driving 3 hours to cabin by myself. To pass the time I would listen to cast recordings and RENT would always be one of the selected CD's. Eventually I started to wonder what a RENT movie would look like. Fast forward to 2015, 10 years since the movie was released, and I'm still wondering what a RENT movie would look like. Because what fans and audiences got in 2005 was not a movie version of the iconic musical. There was a lot wrong with the movie but here are just a couple reasons why the RENT movie just plain sucked.
It Got Stuck in Development Hell
You would think that after the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, studios would be lining up to make this into a feature film? Not the case with RENT. It was still the mid- 1990's and the property was still too risque for most studios to touch. However towards the late 1990's, there were rumblings that Spike Lee was going to direct it, which would have been funny given his reference in the show. Then, when that fizzled, directors from Sam Mendes to Martin Scorsese to Baz Luhrmann were all rumored to be interested. After every studio passed on it, it was finally picked up by Revolution Studios. The Jonathan Larson, generation defining musical was now going to be made by the same studio that created such cinematic classics as White Chicks and Daddy Day Care. RENT in those hands, was doomed before it was even filmed.
Give RENT's edgy risque material, the film obviously needed a director who knew how to navigate through material like that. Spike Lee would have been an excellent choice but instead, the studio gave the job to Chris Columbus. Yes....Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire...and RENT. Columbus was the absolutely wrong person to take this one. He hired a writer with hardly any professional experience and ignored that the show takes place in 1989. He chose to film mostly in L.A. and San Diego instead of NYC. He was worried that certain scenes or references would be too "heavy" for his cast. So he cut any reference to April's demise, various songs(Christmas Bells, Contact, all the voice mails) and made the disastrous decision to have many of the songs be spoken word instead.
But the biggest issue with Columbus' approach on the film was that it was felt like a censored, soulless, corporate sell out. Chris Columbus said he took on the project because he was such a huge "fan" of the original show, but a real fan would not have castrated Larson's material to this extent. If the original show was punk rock, Columbus created a bubble gum pop remix. If anything, I can take solace in the fact that this movie basically killed Columbus' career:
Pre-RENT: Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter movies.
Post-RENT: I Love You Beth Cooper, Percy Jackson and Pixels...
I love the original cast. I love what they did for the show and what they're still doing for it. But as much as I love them, they shouldn't have been cast for the movie version. They were slightly too old for their roles in 1994 and way too old for them in 2005. By the time filming began Adam Pascal was 35, Jesse L Martin was 36, playing characters who were supposed to be in their early 20's. Using the original cast lacked creativity on the part of the producers and director to find a fresh new cast. Among the new cast members, only Tracie Thoms stood out as Joanne. Rosario Dawson, also too old for her character, was so badly auto tuned, it made me question why she was cast to begin with.
The Movie Was Just Bad
Beyond the poor casting and director choices, the movie just turned out to be really bad. Everything felt artificial. The characters felt more smug and shallow on screen then they did in 1994. Any dramatic arch or reasons to care about these characters vanished. The pacing is terrible, it looks way too pretty for people living in squalor. I want to have Mark and Roger's apartment, that should say something.
A RENT movie would have been a dream come true, if it had been released in the late 1990's when a lot of the issues were still relevant. But one could say that the reason why RENT is so difficult to pull off today is because in many ways it succeeded in its mission. HIV/AIDS is no long the epidemic it once was and Gay issues have progressed.
2005 was 10 years too late for a RENT movie.