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Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway Print E-mail
Thursday, 12 February 2009
ImageMention the name Chris Columbus to any 'Rent' fan and they'll likely respond with a frown and a few verbal jabs.  The man responsible for bringing Jonathan Larson's Tony Award-winning Broadway musical to the screen isn't very popular among the show's faithful throng.  To say Columbus ruined 'Rent' overstates the case, but his antiseptic approach and questionable creative decisions drained much of the power and passion out of this raw, emotional work.  Watching  'Rent' live on stage, however, is an entirely different experience– intense, visceral – and few other musicals can duplicate the feeling.

Thanks to director Michael John Warren, who videotaped the show's final Broadway performance last September, anyone can now succumb to 'Rent' fever.  'Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway' is better than a front row seat; Warren's 16 cameras put viewers on stage with the actors, heightening the intimacy, immediacy, and passionate pull of Larson's piece.  Without a doubt, it's one of the most electrifying entertainment experiences in recent memory, and in 1080p with Dolby TrueHD audio, it will simply knock your socks off. 'Rent' changed the face of the Broadway musical with its realistic perspective and honest look at such taboo topics as AIDS, drug addiction, and homosexuality.  Focusing on a tight clique of starving artists who express love, face fear, and find truth in the face of terminal disease and poverty, 'Rent' twists Puccini's 'La Bohème' into a modern rock opera with an inspirational message.  The characters learn to accept their respective fates, no matter how dire, and cherish each special moment and relationship life gives them.  "No Day But Today" is their anthem, and they take it to heart.  The message may sound trite, but with such musical masterworks as Light My Candle, Out Tonight, What You Own, La Vie Bohème, and the iconic Seasons of Love crystallizing it, the theme grabs us by the throat and sticks with us.

Larson employs a mélange of styles from rap and reggae to pop and techno to mirror his characters' racial and sexual diversity, while providing catchy melodies, tight harmonies, and resonating lyrics that nail each moment's emotions.  While it would have been nice if the show's original cast could have reunited for this event, the producers have assembled an excellent company that puts its own indelible stamp on the material.  

My only minor quibble with this production is that Warren relies too heavily on close-ups.  Of course, we all love to absorb the actors' intensity and savor their nuances, but at times we lose the vital theatrical perspective this production is supposed to preserve.  Often the entire stage is in use, but we only see a select cross section, which lends this video a movie-like feel.  Using wider shots more frequently would better showcase the entire tableau and enhance the setting.

'Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway' owes its crisp, vibrant look to its HD video origins, and it's a breathtaking effort.  The multi-racial cast sports a wide variety of fleshtones, but they're all natural and stable, with theatrical makeup never adding any artificial accents.  Sweat and tears are clearly visible, and when Mimi shakes out her hair during Out Tonight, the shower of glitter seems to burst through the screen.  Dense black levels are offset by the theatrical lighting, creating superb contrast, with fine details visible even in dim scenes.  The bright, vivid colors never look pushed, and the texture of various fabrics is strikingly noticeable.

I wish the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio could have been a tad more explosive, but it still makes the show's small band seem big, and provides dynamic, clean sound.  The well-prioritized vocals keep the lyrics understandable even during frenetic numbers, and distinct stereo separation adds heft to Roger's opening solo, One Song Glory.  Reserved mostly for applause, the surrounds only occasionally kick in, and bass frequencies don't dig quite deep enough to meet the needs of a rock musical.  Overall though, the track produces a nice immersive feel that serves 'Rent' well.

Rentheads will devour the well-produced extras, which include the lyrical, sentimental documentary, "'Rent': The Final Days on Broadway," which chronicles the show's closing through the eyes of the cast, director, and producers; "The Final Curtain Call," an emotional reunion of past and present 'Rent' cast members; "The Wall," which spotlights a graffiti wall outside the Nederlander Theater, where fans of 'Rent' can write down their impressions; and "The Final Lottery," a featurette saluting a time-honored 'Rent' ticket-selling tradition. A couple of HD exclusives sweeten the deal: "Home" looks at the dilapidated charm of the Nederlander Theater, and "Casting"…well, that featurette speaks for itself.  There's also a BD-Live link.

There's nothing like live theater, but 'Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway' is the next best thing, presenting this legendary musical the way it should always be seen.  The first-rate cast rivals the iconic originals, and excellent audio and video make this stirring show more affecting and immediate than ever before.  A fine spate of extras completes this must-own package.

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