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Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (2008)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 2/3/2009

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/31/2009

Anecdotally, I've noticed that when people are presented with two works of entertainment, such as a movie or a song, which are essentially identical, they prefer the first one to which they were exposed. For examples, both The Ring and The Grudge are both well-made films, but they are remakes of Japanese movies. I saw the Japanese versions first and those are the versions which I prefer. (In contrast, I have many friends who saw the U.S. versions first and like those better.) I had heard about the Broadway show Rent for years, but knew very little about it until I saw the movie version. Now, the Broadway production has been captured live and brought to home video. Will I like the much-lauded play, or am I too used to the movie for it to move me?

Rent takes place in in the Alphabet City section of Manhattan. Mark (Adam Kantor), a frustrated documentary filmmaker, shares a dilapidated loft (which has no heat) with Roger (Will Chase), a former promising rock star who has become a hermit due to the fact that he has HIV. Itís Christmas Eve and their old friend Tom Collins (Michael McElroy) has come to see them. Unfortunately, heís mugged on the way. He meets Angel (Justin Johnston), who helps him. Mark and Rogerís former roommate, Bennie (Rodney Hicks), who has married a rich woman and now owns their building, arrives to let Mark and Roger know that their rent is due, despite promises that they could live there for free. This further dampens Markís mood, as heís recently been dumped by his girlfriend Maureen (Eden Espinosa) for a woman, Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Roger meets Mimi (Renee Goldsberry), a junkie who works as a go-go dancer. Together, this group of friends attempt to work through hardships including disease, homelessness, and relationships, and as the play goes on, we learn what makes each of them tick.

As a rule, I typically don't like musicals. I don't know what it is about the characters singing instead of using dialogue which bothers me, but it does. There's also the fact that most musicals feature music which doesn't appeal to me. But, when it comes to movies, I always try to keep an open mind, and I checked out the 2005 film version of Rent and much to my surprise, I liked it. First off, the music isn't your standard Andrew Lloyd Webber or Rogers & Hammerstein Broadway fare, but something which falls much closer to rock and pop music. (The opening number "Rent" is especially good.) Secondly, unlike most musicals, the story isn't a far-fetched fairy-tale -- These are real people dealing with real problems. Yes, one must question their bohemian lifestyles, but the issues of love, disease, and poverty are universal ones and show creator the late Jonathan Larson did an amazing job of pouring a great deal of emotion into the music and lyrics. The cast of the film was made up of some original members of the Broadway cast and some newcomers, but I felt that they all did a good job.

I'm not one to go to the theater, but having been impressed with the film, I was very interested in viewing Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway, a taping of the final Broadway production of the show. I wanted to see the play which had sparked such a devoted following amongst the show's fans, who are known as "Rentheads". Technically, the presentation is very impressive. Director Michael John Warren has chosen to place the viewer in the position of the audience for much of the show. It's not until the show is over that he cuts to the audience for their reaction. (More in a moment on how the audio presentation ties into this.) The camera also goes on-stage, bringing us close-ups of the actors and offering great angles of the performance in progress.

As for the production itself, I have mixed feelings. Yes, I realize that for the twelve years that Rent ran on Broadway it was seen by thousands (millions) of people and the stage-show is beloved by many. In contrast, I've read scathing reviews of Chris Columbus' film version, stating that it didn't capture the show. Well, for me, I liked the movie better. Maybe it was because I saw it first and I'm more familiar with it (having now seen it a few times). I can say that the actual play itself is still very powerful and that the songs are just as good as ever. I enjoyed the songs which are in the play but weren't in the film. However, from a technical standpoint, despite a good sound mix (more in a moment), the songs don't have the same "oomph" which they did in the film. Most of the cast is good, but I didn't think that Will Chase's portrayal of Roger held a candle (pun intended) to Adam Pascal's take on the role. Also, I'm not a fan of the barren, use your imagination type of stage dressing. I'm sure that this was necessary when Rent was first staged, but by now, a more detailed set could have been created.

All around, Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway is a quality production, and for those who can't or wouldn't go to the theater to see the show live, this is a great way to experience it. The presentation makes us feel that you are there and we get a bird's-eye view of everything. Your feelings about the actual show will most likely come down to your views on plays versus movies. If you like the play, then you'll probably love this, but for me, for now, I prefer the movie.

Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway arrives today for you, tomorrow for me on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The show is letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. I have to assume that despite the fact that "filmed" is in the title, this was actually captured on HD. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. The colors look great and the image is never too dark or bright. There is no video noise or "whiteout" from the stage lights. The clarity and high level of detail really enhance the "you are there" feeling. The Disc carries a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.0 Mbps. OK, we're here for the music, and I can tell you that it sounds great. The vocals are strong and clear and never drowned out by the music. With the music, we can hear each individual instruments and it's all very distinct. The music comes from the front and rear speakers, and there are some nice stereo effects when characters move to the extreme sides of the stage. The rear speakers are reserved for sounds from the audience, so again, we feel as if we are sitting in the front row and the rest of the crowd is behind us.

The Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway Blu-ray Disc contains six featurettes. "Rent: The Final Days on Broadway" (37 minutes) is exactly what the title states -- it's an in-depth look at the show's last week. The piece contains interviews with the cast and producers, as well as a great deal of behind-the-scenes footage. We get a brief history of the show, and then the speakers share their feelings on the show ending. We see how the actors prepared for working with the cameras. From there, we get a "you are there" look at that final night. "The Final Curtain Call" (8 minutes) is backstage footage of the original actors who came onstage for the show's finale. "Home" (7 minutes) is a profile of the Nederlander Theater where the show has run since 1996, and how the place was transformed for the production. We get a good look at the notes which adorn the walls of the theater. "The Wall" (6 minutes) is a discussion of the notes fans leave on the walls in and around the theater. In "Casting" (8 minutes), Casting Director Bernard Telsey talks about how the show was originally cast, and where subsequent actors were found. "The Final Lottery" (9 minutes) shows us the fans who waited in line for a chance to be in the first two rows for the final performance.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long