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Review: 'Rent' raw and poignant

By Paul Clinton
For CNN.com

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"Rent" retained most of the actors from the original Broadway production.

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(CNN) -- I've never seen the stage musical "Rent," but the movie had me at hello.

The film kicks off with the show's best-known song, "Seasons of Love," and the edgy energy, emotional power and its message of hope and love just kept building until the film's conclusion.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical has retained most of the original players from the off-Broadway show -- it quickly moved uptown to Broadway -- and that's extremely unusual for Hollywood. It paid off with performances that fit the actors like a second skin.

The musical is still playing on the Great White Way, with nearly 4,000 performances to date.

This story about disenfranchised youth living on the edge of society is the best urban-based musical of its kind since "West Side Story." The two share a number of similarities. "West Side Story," of course, found its inspiration from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," and "Rent" traces its roots to Puccini's classic opera "La Bohème." Both are populated with characters living on the edge of society, with songs driving the narrative.

After nearly 10 years, the musical's subject matter and location -- AIDS and the bleak Lower East Village of Manhattan -- have changed dramatically. Thousands of people are now living with the deadly disease due to new miracle drugs, and the Lower East Side has become gentrified. But the movie's theme remains relevant: young people trying to figure out their place in a world they don't necessarily respect, or want to be a part of.

The large ensemble cast of angry bohemians includes aspiring songwriter Roger (Adam Pascal); Roger's roommate and wannabe filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp); computer genius Tom (portrayed by Jessie L. Martin, best known for his role as detective Ed Green on the TV show "Law & Order"); Tom's cross-dressing lover Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Tony for this role); and Benny (Taye Diggs), who betrayed his friends when he married their landlord's daughter and is now threatening the group with eviction from their seedy loft apartments.

The two new cast members who weren't from the original group are lawyer Joanne (Tracie Thoms) and Roger's downstairs neighbor Mimi (Rosario Dawson.)

Their raw and poignant stories are based on real people and observations made by the musical's creator, Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics. He knew his subject matter extremely well since he lived on the Lower East Side. But he tragically passed away from an aortic aneurysm on the eve of the play's first preview.

Rather than let this awful, and completely unexpected turn of events, tear them apart, the cast pulled together and became empowered by this musical, which would be Larson's final gift to the world.

They decided to put all of their talent, hearts and souls into "Rent" as a tribute to Larson.

Ironically the musical is about young people finding their personal passions, trying to merge their artistic talents with a soulless corporate world, and deciding how to spend their lives. Larson, at the age of 35, seemed to have found his own answers to these questions, but his life was cut short, just as he was about to fullfill his greatest dream.

While this movie is definitely an ensemble piece, Rapp's portrayal of Mark, the filmmaker who documents his friends lives and guides the audience through the gritty underbelly of Alphabet City, is a standout.

Dawson is also excellent as Mimi Marquez, a heroin-addicted exotic dancer with a cartload of emotional baggage.

Chris Columbus, who is best known as a director of comedies, would not be on my short list for helming this project. At times he uses a sledgehammer to get his points across, and some of his shots seem repetitive, but overall Larson's powerful story comes shining through.

The making of this movie was a family affair. One of the co-producers is Julie Larson, Jonathan's sister, and his father, Al, was on the set every day.

Overall "Rent" is a gut-wrenching experience. Yes, it's a tale about that particular time and place in New York City, but it still contains contemporary issues about life, and how you plan to live it.

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