My first exposure to RENT came in college. At the time, many people my age were discovering the suddenly modern world of musical theater courtesy of writer/composer Jonathan Larson. My discovery came at the hands of a dorm mate’s obsession with the show’s soundtrack, which mixed powerful lyrics with modern rock. I’d seen Phantom of the Opera and other musicals, but never had I heard a show tackle such complex topics with such raw emotion. Larson’s personal tale is both triumphant and tragic, a Broadway hit for a long-toiling artist, but one whose success only became clear the day the 35-year-old composer died. RENT’s tale is equally joyful and sad, but in hindsight, the connection makes sense. RENT was Jonathan Larson, and he was RENT. And this fact is made perfectly clear on the show’s Blu-ray Disc release.
The transition from stage to screen led to some natural changes to RENT, both for the medium’s sake and for brevity’s. Still, the core story remains intact, as do the issues it explores (love, poverty, friendship, disease, homosexuality and death). These topics are no less powerful today than they were when the show first hit Broadway in the mid-1990s, and the fact that RENT remains as topical as it does is a testament to the story’s depth and characters. In fact, it’s the characters that make RENT what it is, because without the emotional performances from RENT’s cast (the movie includes almost all the original on-Broadway performers), much of the story would fall flat.
In addition to being great actors, though, each of the on-screen personalities is a phenomenal singer, including Rosario Dawson and Taye Diggs, who joined the cast specifically for its 2005 film adaptation. And this music is where the RENT Blu-ray presentation really shines. The 1080p AVC video shows so many odd signs of age and grain that over-the-air HDTV signals actually look crisper and more saturated than this Blu-ray Disc. These visual snafus, however, take nothing away from the impeccable audio transfer. Presented in Dolby TrueHD and PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio, the RENT soundtrack is astounding in its delivery of the vocals, music and, surprisingly, the few surround-sound elements present in the film. RENT is steeped in rock and roll, so there are some definite changes in volume levels as viewers move from dialogue to ballad to hard rock. But decibels aside, the audio quality itself is remarkable, an important element for any musical, but particularly one as well-known as RENT.
RENT’s cultural significance is discussed time and again in the only real bonus feature worth exploring, Documentary: No Day But Today (1:52:12, 480p). Almost as long as the feature-film itself, this documentary isn’t about RENT, per se, but about its creator, Jonathan Larson. Keep in mind, though, just how closely RENT and Larson are linked, and you’ll understand why the documentary is so appropriate for the film. Only the last 14 minutes of this bonus feature relate to bringing the Broadway show to the silver screen; the rest is essentially a video biography that covers Larson’s childhood and education; the years-long process of writing, re-writing and finally finding a producer; the troubled pre-production and rehearsal schedule; and the show’s success in the days and weeks after Larson’s sudden death. Larson’s goal with RENT was to bring the MTV generation to the world of musical theater, and he undoubtedly did just that. However, in creating a musical that also paid homage to his deceased friends, Larson ultimately ended up creating an homage to his own life, as well.
The great irony of this is that, through the Blu-ray Disc release of RENT, Larson’s family and friends have essentially written yet another eulogy for him. Larson died the night before RENT made its public debut, so his family had to immediately take the reins of the show and see Jonathan’s dream come true. This turned into a years-long process, however, and it wasn’t really until this Blu-ray release that they’ve been able to pay tribute as they might have liked in the mid-1990s. Throughout all the Broadway show’s successes, the family was continually sad that Jonathan wasn’t getting the attention he deserved personally. So, this documentary focusing so heavily on him is the eulogy they never got to give.
Consequently, if you’re looking for insight into how director Chris Columbus brought RENT from the stage to the screen, don’t look for much insight in the documentary. Instead, the feature-length commentary with director and cast is your best bet, as it really accounts for most of the information you’d normally expect from a “documentary” on a Blu-ray Disc release. The Deleted Scenes (12:03, 480p) round out the bonus features of note, complete with two musical numbers that didn’t make the final version of the film and a scene that would have made Benny much more likeable had it not been a cutting-room-floor casualty.
RENT is one of the few films that makes you laugh out loud, cry like a baby and leave humming tunes with such familiarity that you’ll feel you wrote them yourself. But that personal identity, that ability to elicit such universal emotions, is what makes RENT a timeless musical. Is it a timeless Blu-ray Disc? Not in the traditional sense, since it has merely passable video quality and limited bonus features. If you’re into Blu-ray strictly for the video, don’t pay the RENT. But if you’re into films that bring about emotions that aren’t often felt in modern movies, RENT this one to own.
– Jonas Allen