In February of 1990, yet-to-be-celebrated playwright Jonathan Larson (Rent) was about to turn 30. Over the next five years he would pen the source play for this movie and, eventually, the musical that shook the world and won him awards from the Tony’s to the Pulitzer.
I have to admit, I was worried during the first 15 minutes of this story that it just wasn’t for me. Watching an artist bemoaning his lack of success as he’s about to turn 30 can be funny, but this was so very much in earnest, even if history provided some relevant irony…however, even as it kept that time bomb ticking in the background, the story broadened as it went along and, by the end, packed several well-placed punches. The story is both tragic and transcendent. And, for those that care, it provides some insight as to where Rent grew from.
But that is only part of what makes the movie interesting. Frankly, Rent is not a show or movie that resonated for me, and I lived in NYC in the 80s and 90s as an artist, so it wasn’t a lack of connection. What makes this story work is the cast, direction, and ultimately its message.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (Vivo) took Steven Levenson’s (Fosse/Verdon) very clever adaptation, which jumps between the titular play and the real-life drama seamlessly, and infused it with energy. He kept it alive in both incarnations letting us experience Larson’s work as intended and as the near-autobiography it was.
Miranda also did a great job finding his Jonathan. Andrew Garfield (Silence) completely disappears into his role as Larson. When the credits role and you see the archival footage, it is eerie how much Garfield slipped into his skin. Within his circle, Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Dark Phoenix), Robin de Jesus, and MJ Rodriguez (Pose) help fill out his world. And, at the periphery, two fabulous performances by Bradley Whitford (Songbird) and Judith Light complete the story in unexpected ways. Whitford, in particular, should be right up there with Garfield at awards time.
And, yes, this is definitely awards-bait. Not just because it is executed beautifully, but because the performances and impact are solid and subtle. Despite feeling dated as it launches, the story becomes more universal as it goes along. By the time the final moments occur, the time frame no longer matters, only the people and the message stand for examination. This is really a movie worth spending time with for both its performances and the craft of the adaptation.