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by Rob Kendt

©2005 Phil Bray
Rent star Anthony Rapp leads
the company in "La Vie Boheme"
The leading character in Rent, the remarkably well-made new film of the 1996 Broadway musical phenomenon, is New York City—or at least the Manhattan that's supposed to matter, the pre-gentrified East Village. The point can be argued that the lettered avenues below 14th Street have stood as the gritty heart of Gotham youth culture. From the Beats to the punks, this neighborhood has attracted and nurtured rebels and outsiders like junkie moths to a dope-cooking flame.

The late composer/librettist Jonathan Larson's rock-opera valentine to the frustrated, impoverished East Village artists of his late-1980s generation since moved uptown and across the world. And the new Rent film is likely to reach even deeper into the American heartland and overseas. So it's heartening to see how fully this Hollywood version embraces the show's roots in graffiti-strewn alleys, heatless lofts, fluorescent-lit subway cars, dingy bars and auditoriums.

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Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt captures a wintry New York light that penetrates even the indoor settings, and tellingly contrasts it with the precious glow of warmth that draws the city's lonely hearts together. And Chris Columbus,
©2005 Phil Bray
Adam Pascal & Rosario
Dawson in Rent
showing a flair for on-the-fly musical staging one wouldn't suspect from the director of Home Alone or the first Harry Potter film, has characters sing in the midst of traffic, on the F train, waltzing down Avenue A, on tenement rooftops.

With screenwriter Stephen Chbosky, Columbus has wisely chucked most of the through-sung dialogue and solved the cinematic problem of characters breaking into song by going for broke—just plowing through the film's realism to create a bracing film musical hybrid. Has a character ever belted an opening number through a mouthful of blood after a brutal mugging, as Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) does here? Occasional flights of fancy—flashback montages and fantasy dance numbers à la Chicago—are weaved in, mostly to fine effect.

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