DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Rent, Torch Song Trilogy, A Chorus Line, Every Little Step, The Book of RevelationCats, Evita, The Company, Dreamgirls, Step Up, Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, Nine

Title:  Rent

Release Date: 2005

Nationality and Language:  USA/UK, English

Running time: 128 min

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Distributor and Production Company: Columbia/Revolution/1492

Director; Writer: Chris Columbus; written and music composed by Jonathan Larson, closely based on the stage musical by Mr. Larson; screenplay by Steve Chbosky

Producer: Mark Radcliffe, Robert De Niro

Cast:  Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Rosario Dawson, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs

Technical: Panavision 2.3: 1

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: music, AIDS, same-sex marriage, urban values, stage v. film

I saw the stage musical in St. Paul, MN around 1999 as I remember (I think at the Ordway). The film does come across as a stage musical translated directly to film. Some of the shots of the characters are more distant than they should be, and the acting style certainly reflects the stage origins. I believe that most of the cast comes from stage experience, which has a very different artistic discipline, but that is not necessarily negative. The music, to be sure, has an intoxicating lilt.

 The first song starts with “525,600 minutes in a year,” and you math teachers can verify that this is right. And life does seem to produce that many experiences, especially for a ménage of characters living an urban lifestyle in New York City, and constituting an informal family, but becoming very close emotionally (closer than many blood families) as some members deal with HIV infection and AIDS. But they are also drawn together by common artistic values, especially the filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) and songwriter Roger (Adam Pascal). The two leading men are roommates, and they seem to have girlfriends, but you want them to become lovers. Maybe they will. Sexual orientations seem interchangeable and mutable in this story.  Now Mimi and Maureen (Rosario Dawson and Idina Menzel) will have a lavish same-sex wedding (if you could call it that in 1990, but there is plenty of social support for the lesbian couple), and then threaten to split up immediately. The drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) will come to a tragic end after moving accounts in an HIV support group, to which the film returns often. And Mimi herself will have a close call with a near death experience in a near final sequence. The title of the play comes from the threat of eviction by a landlord Benjamin (Taye Diggs), but that seems to be more of a ruse than anything that creates real plot tension.

 Technically, most of the film looks shot on stages, that emulate warehouses and grungy East Village like lofts. But it makes an argument for digital projection. In one scene, some white Christmas lights in the stage background cannot stay in focus; in a cemetery scene there are lush, delicious autumn colors but the trees do not stay in focus. Digital fixes that.

 There is one scene of vigorous “dirty dancing” (it isn’t very dirty) on tables in a restaurant. There are a couple of real disco scenes, and they got me thinking, that the movies haven’t really done it yet. That is, go into a gay disco with about 500 legal permission releases and Panavision wide-angle camera, and film a dance floor as it really is around 1 AM on a Sunday morning. Great candidates for this would be The Saloon in Minneapolis (with its three spaced stages) as well as that city’s Gay 90s, The Village Station and TMC in Dallas,  and Tracks/Velvet Nation in Washington (whatever that becomes after it moves when the new baseball stadium for the Nationals is built).

 The overview of the film is framed by the documentary filmmaker Mark, and after the opening number, the film moves to one of Mark’s encapsulated 16mm shots of a homeless man, and widens out. Mark is often shown filming with a vintage camera and editing with the equipment available at the time.

 The AIDS soliloquies remind me of some of my friends in Dallas in the 1980s, through the Oak Lawn Counseling Center. There was Rodney, who made a miraculous comeback from Kaposi’s Sarcoma, and maintained himself as a flight attendant supervisor, only to take a setback and finally succumb two years later. I saw his quilt in 1989 in Washington. 

 Torch Song Trilogy (1988, New Line, dir. Paul Bogart, play and screenplay by Harvey Feierstein, adapted from the play) is a famous adaptation of another film that deals with urban gay issues. Harvey Feierstein plays Arnold, a character modeled after himself, as he searches for love with a school teacher and then a fashion model and has to deal with a mother who seems to come out of Tennessee Williams, Matthew Broderick plays Alan, Anne Bancroft plays Mother. Music by Steve Cohen and Joseph Renard.

 A Chorus Line (1985, Columbia/Polygram, dir. Richard Attenborough, 113 min, PG-13) is another important comparison, as a large assembly of aspiring singers, dancers and actors try out for spots in a production. There are plenty of passionate songs. The original musical for stage was written by Michael Bennett, Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood, Jr. What I did for love! 

Every Little Step (2008, Sony Pictures Classics/William Morris, dir. Adam Del Deo and James Stern) traces auditions for a 2006 revival on Broadway of "A Chorus Line". Blogger.

The Book of Revelation (2006, Image/Palace, dir. Ana Kokkinos, 105 min, Australia, NC-17) A male dancer (Tom Long) is kidnapped and stripped by three women. Blogger

 Cats (1998, dir. David Mallet, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on book by T.S. Elliot) was a TV adaptation for PBS. Cats do have real personalities, as do Old Deuteronomy, McCavity, the Jellicle Cats, all scrambling for position in the afterlife. Remember the cats in Stuart Little?  I was adopted by an UMC (unaltered male cat) whom I called Timmy in a Dallas apartment in 1979, and he would remember the sound of my car and run for the door as I came home, and present me with birds to cook. This is pretty much like the musical. I saw the original musical at the State Fair Theater in Dallas around 1980.

 Evita (1996, Touchstone, dir. Alan Parker, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, play by Alan Rice, 134 min, PG) is an adaptation of the stage musical which I saw in London in 1982. Evita (Eva Duarte, played by Madonna) is a low budget Argentine actress who eventually marries strong man Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce).  Others liked the film for the politics, which for Argentina have usually been in upheaval. The film goes outdoors a lot, particularly for the crowd scenes, and gets away from staginess.   

The Company (2004, PG-13, from Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Robert Altman (Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco) is a vivid look at the inside of the Chicago Joffrey Ballet. This film does not wander among subplots as much as the de jure Altman film, but it still is more documdrama than a typical plot. The Cinemascope (starting with High Definition) photography is stunning in its detail; the wide screen presents so much the viewer cannot follow it all. The film resembles Columbia’s Center Stage (2000).

Step Up (2006, Touchstone/Summit, dir. Anne Fletcher, wr Duane Adler and Melissa Rosenberg, 103 min, PG-13, Cinemascope). Alabama born Channing Tatum plays Tyler Gage, a white boy born on the wrong side of the tracks and raised in foster families in Baltimore, among gangs. He has natural dance moves and is quite a break dancer on disco floors. His pals lead him, after being bounced from a bar one night, to the Maryland School for the Arts, where he participates in vandalism and is sentenced to 200 hours community service. Then Nora Clark (Jena Dewan) loses her regular dance partner (Tim Lacatena) to an injury. While Tyler mops floors, he sells himself as a partner. Their platonic relationship goes up and down, as he has to convince the headmaster (Rachel Griffiths) that he belongs there. His gang buddies disapprove of him, and he is challenged to do anything necessary to prove that he deserves an opportunity that he is not sure he even wants. He takes ballet lessons, and will eventually wear tights, and learn than dance can be a very macho profession. In the final scene, he has one last chance to prove himself in an emergency, just after losing his best friend. The screenplay has the obvious beat points and is pretty formulaic. What is remarkabel, though, is that Tyler proves that natural gifts and street smarts are more important than privilege or status. He ought to become The Apprentice.  The movie has a good mix of disco and classical music in the soundtrack.  Compare to "Center Stage" and "Billy Elliot." 

Dreamgirls (2006, Dreamworks/Paramount, dir. Bill Condon, book by Tom Eyen, 131 min, PG-13) is a big musical for the Christmas season and King holiday, about three black soul singers (from Detroit) who start around 1961 and extend their career for about two decades. Much of the film touches on the Civil Rights movement and the riots in Detroit in the 1960s (there is live footage, and some recreation of the destruction). At one point, one of the girls is bumped by an "amateur" who has not "paid his dues" and that turns out to be Dr. Martin Luther King. (There have been a lot of requests for the search string "pay your dues" on this site in recent weeks, and I wonder if this incident in the film explains that.) But the picture does not do as much with the politics as it could, and leaves some loose ends. Later, however, the payola scandal in the record business figures into the story. A lot of the somewhat dramatic confrontations break out into song in an entertaining if dramatically awkward manner. Technically, the Cinemascope film is precise and detailed, with delicious sets and colors (sometimes playing with backgrounds that may be real or not) in various cities, with an almost 3-D effect into the stage, giving the film the look of the Broadway musical that begot it--forcing the actors to use stage acting as well as film techniques. The soul music dazzles in SDDS digital, almost taking on symphonic effects. Beyonce Knowles, Anika Nonie Rose, Jennifer Hudson, Sharon Leal, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Jordan Belfi, John Krasinski, John Lithgow. The studio name, in this case, matches the movie title pretty well.   

Hairspray (2007, New Line Cinema, dir. Adam Shankman, wr. Leslie Dixon and John Walters (from 1988 film), 107 min, PG) "People who are different--their timing is coming," Tracy Turnblad says. "Not in Baltimore," Edna says.  This is the feel-good musical about integration in Baltimore in 1962, via a TV dance show, in the days of the twist. Most of the text is sung, as in an operetta. The film production staff looked hard for a new face to play the plump Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky). And for her mother, John Travolta ("ain't it cool?") proves that acting is a real profession by playing in drag as Edna. (The show has always required a newbie as Tracy and a biological male for Edna.) An aging Christopher Walken is Mr. Turnblad, so in a sense there are "two daddies" for parents. Travolta, remember, looked like the perfect young man -- lean, soft skin but hairy chest as the dirty dancing stud in "Saturday Night Live," but by 1985 he was willing to wax his entire bod for ballet in "Staying Alive." Everybody noticed, but nobody talked about it much, just in drabs.  Here she-he is obese, too, with bald but prosthetic legs. Oddly, he-she still looks like a cartoon caricature of John Travolta. The rest of the movie is a delight, and the audience clapped at the end, with middle school kids dancing in front of the screen during the end credits. The racial slurs are shocking and funning both. Anyone who said "Negro Day" in talk radio would go the route of Imus, but that is what shows did in those days. And Tracy had to stand up for what was right, and face the police, getting herself and Edna on TV, and hold off the cops in the final sing. The high school scenes show her mind in other places, and her history teacher threatens special education, a concept not used then. Zac Efron plays Link, whom Washington Post critic Peter Marks calls "the cutest boy on the set" (in "Volumizer," p C01, July 20, 2007, here) Efron dyes his own "hairspray" black here, and looks a little ridiculous; he looks right in "High School Musical" and is said to be America's richest teen.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, Dreamworks / Warner Bros., dir, Tim Burton, music by Stephen Sondheim, 117 min, R, UK).  Well, at one point, Sweeney (Johnny Depp) does ask one of his customers, "Would you like a shave?"  He also sings about his "glistening" metal blade, as if alluding to glistening, over-buffed bodies.

I recall, back in 1977, a gay quasi-porno magazine that I picked up at the Dallas Crossroads Market had a cover "shave, Mister?" and a torso shaved on one side. Inside, Sweeney Todd was depicted as a New York City barber tucked away near the Trucks in the West Village, one of those recesses so secretive that people only visit it to satisfy their deepest fantasies. The virtuoso writing starts with the armpits, moves to the chest and down, all the way indeed, one side at a time. "The hair that announced your manhood is leaving you now," the article went, as it described preparations for a debutante party in the leather bar (after all, you have to get in). Although masochistic and humiliating, it was hardly violent.  Now this was even two years before the Broadway musical. But ever since, in the GLBT community, Sweeney Todd has always been a quasi-trademark for the quirkiest adventures. There was a local barber in the 50s who always kept his wrists shaved, and I wonder if surgeons will have to do the same for infection control in these days of staph. Quattro now has a funny ad (as in Rolling Stone) of a toweled man in a barber chair, waiting to be a victim (the DC Crew Club has a barber chair on the premises).

As for the musical, I never saw it, but I picked up the RCA CD in the 90s, and the music has a lilt; it's hard to believe that the subject matter is so dark. The movie turns late 19th Century London into almost a comic book caricature. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1, and the movie opens up only once, in a CGI scene at Brighton Beach (I think). Most of the time the spaces are dark, almost in black and white, certainly sepia, with the hemoglobin of the spurting blood simulated by CGI. It's almost an animated movie. Tim Burton does know how to have fun with the darkest matters by focusing on the images and making them comical. There are perhaps ten throat slittings (starting with Sacha Baron Cohen) followed by body-dispatch into the cellar below. You finally see how Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter) meat pies are made, with the grinder (I wonder if the clothes get ground in; they're still the worst meat pies in London, laced with e-coli and plenty of sweetbreads. I once vomited in ninth grade after eating a chicken pot pie; so I've avoided meat pies ever since as a result of aversion conditioning.) There's not a whole lot else, except for one live cremation. The audience rather laughed than winced. 

Most of the movie is sung (especially in the beginning) and the songs have the typical lilt; but the orchestral music is riveting with the compound 12/8 meters and shifting syncopation.

Now some of this has been done before, in mainstream comedy horror. There were the fritters of "Motel Hell" and the cannibalism of "Eating Raoul" and "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" (and, for that matter, "Pieces"). 



Nine (2009, dir. Rob Marshall, UK/Italy). Musical about a rogue Italian filmmaker in the 60s. Blogger.

Related reviews: .Center Stage, Billy Elliot    Walk the Line   Romance & Cigarettes , Dancing in the Dark ("musicals")

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