If you are ever going to see a musical—even if it's just to indulge in a post-ironic hipster mock-fest—you need to make it Chris Columbus' screen adaptation of Rent. If you already love musicals, and in particular, Rent, stop reading and get to the theater. Now. But if you don't, you'll need some coaxing, so listen up: With its exhilarating exploration of alternative lifestyles, AIDS, and general bohemia, no theatrical production has had more impact on the public consciousness than Rent. Period. And though its leather-clad tales of drugs and cross-dressing are not nearly as edgy as they once were (thanks in part to the influence of the show itself) and its faux-grunge rock ballads are pretty darn dated, Rent still possesses an undeniable vitality.
What's more, Columbus' film, for what it is, is a good film; in the genre of musical-to-screen adaptation, it might even be a great film. At the very least, it's the most vigorous thing the uber-glossed Harry Potter/Home Alone hack has ever put out. Using a smart screenplay by Steven Chbosky (from the late Jonathan Larson's book and lyrics), Columbus foregoes the extremely cheesy sung-dialogue bits that patch together the stage version's musical numbers, and just has the actors converse in between showtunes. The result adds new clarity to the musical's rather convoluted plot about a group of AIDS-addled New Yorkers struggling to pay their rent and make their art without selling out.
Intersplicing spoken dialogue also places greater emphasis on what has kept Rent in the black for so long: It has a shitload of kickass songs. These, Columbus and his talented cast handle with exceedingly infectious energy. In a brilliant move, the principal cast is composed almost entirely of actors from the original Broadway production, including the riveting Adam Pascal as the emotionally closed off songwriter Roger, and Anthony Rapp as his geeky filmmaker roommate Mark. Their gritty lower East Side Manhattan world is fleshed out with vibrant performances from fellow Broadway originals Jesse L. Martin as the homeless Ph.D.-owner Tom Collins, Wilson Jermaine Heredia as his heartbreaking boy/girlfriend Angel, Taye Diggs as the evil landlord Benny, and Idina Menzel as the stunningly hot bisexual performance artist Maureen. The newcomers are good, too, with Rosario Dawson forging a predictably smoking portrayal of the smack-addled Mimi, and Tracie Thomas chiming in a stunning performance as Maureen's uptight girlfriend Joanne. The character of Joanne is underwritten and unbelievable in the stage version, but here, thanks to Thomas' charismatic work and some skillful staging by Columbus (the show-stopping quarreling-lover anthem "Take Me or Leave Me" takes place between the two women at the after-party for their wedding), she's a crucial part of the film's layered dynamic.
Make no mistake: Rent is no-holds-barred cheese and some of the songs play like a bad karaoke video, replete with Pascal's terrible last-remnants-of-grunge feathered hair. But for every song that induces cringing (the climactic "Living In America," wherein Pascal stands atop a rocky butte in New Mexico and raises his arms to the sky), there are multiple songs that thrill with the exuberance and passion on display (the exquisitely choreographed ode to jealousy, "Tango: Maureen"; Collins' goofy entrepreneurial daydream "Moving to Santa Fe," sung aboard a filthy subway).
If you don't already love musicals, Rent's unfettered joy won't be enough to change your cynical heart—hell, it might even darken it more. But if you once did love musicals, Rent will make you remember why. And if you still love musicals, it'll just make you feel really fucking good.