Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (2008) / Musical-Documentary
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for sexuality, drug references and language
Running time: 165 min
Cast: Will Chase, Adam Kantor, Michael McElroy, Rodney Hicks, Tracie Thoms, Justin Johnston, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Eden Espinosa
Director: Michael Grief
Screenplay: Jonathan Larson
Review published September 29, 2008
You may be wondering why just three short years after most of the original Broadway cast of friends made a movie musical out of the long-running, Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera (12 years in the limelight) we would need another film on the same subject, released in Hi-Def (with terrific sound) by Sony's Hot Ticket (their film company for concerts and events shown in movie theaters for a limited time), done with different performers. One presumes that many felt the need to give the fans what they want to remember it by before it leaves the main arena for hit shows, Broadway. Another is that many of the play's many fans think the changes made for the movie (cutting out songs, toning things down, etc.) didn't do it justice. Whatever the reason, there's just no perfect way to capture the contagious energy and bristling thrills of a live performance in Manhattan's Nederlander Theatre on film, as we know that what we see has been prescreened, edited, and that whatever mistakes that can occur when doing it live will not occur in a polished product, especially as those performances have been edited together from several different shows. Not to mention the intimacy of being in the same room as the performers.
I won't belabor this review with a synopsis (for that, you can read my review for the theatrical version linked here). I also will not directly review the Broadway show itself, as that has been reviewed many times, and it serves no purpose to do so since I am not actually seeing a live show. Essentially, this is a show for people who've either seen the Broadway show and loved it, or who haven't at all and want to get a taste of what it is like to see a production of the play at a fraction of the price. Unfortunately, as I have alluded to in the last paragraph, you're not going to get the same experience as seeing the play. In some ways that can be better, and in some ways worse. Obviously, you can see the play in the familiar confines of your neighborhood theater, without the congestion and long waits you'd experience on Broadway. You can also see the performers from more than one angle, and closer than you could from even the best seats in the house. You can see them sweat, see actual tears stream down their faces, and see what it might be like to be an unseen character on the stage along with them. With the exception of a ten-minute intermission, you won't see any of the stage hands or crew -- you're only going to see what someone in the audience would get to see when they look on the stage once the performance starts.
The downside is that you're also missing a lot that you would normally see when you pay for a ticket to the live show. The reason is that director Michael Grief (who also has served as the production's stage director) has decided to exploit what he is capable of doing with the close-ups by providing nearly nothing but. Head shots keeps us from seeing what's going on from the rest of the performers not shown. Choreography is mostly lost as we rarely see below waist level what the actors are doing. It's not only claustrophobic, but it is confusing when so many cuts take place in the action. Unlike a real film, which sets up points of view and establishes the characters and their locations within the mise-en-scene, we often are unsure of where the performers are in proximity to spots on the stage or closeness to characters off screen. There are also far more cuts in this film version of a stage play that has none, but there are more than if you were to stage this specifically for the screen. It's hard to imagine that being able to see players up close can be distancing, but that's exactly the result.
Despite the awkwardness of the film's editing, the actors do a remarkable job in transcending the limitations of the medium to deliver some emotional material, particularly as the show nears its tearful ending. There are a couple of instances when the actors manage to evoke real tears -- tears most in the in-house audience would be too distant to see. The play ends with a touching curtain call featuring actors who've played the various roles in the past, including original cast members Anthony Rapp and Jesse L. Martin, joining for one final rendition of "Seasons of Love". If you're a fan of the play, you'll likely bristle with excitement to see familiar faces tearfully pay homage to a play that has touched millions. If you're not as familiar, it may be a little muddled with the poor choice of angles and tight close-ups. Luckily for everyone witnessing the play-on-film, the performances, music and writing shine through enough to make it worthwhile.
©2008 Vince Leo