stevie’s review published on Letterboxd:
Patti LuPone once said: “I think the only person that knows how to do musicals on camera is Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” The more movie musicals I watch, the more true that statement becomes. There’s a very specific language between the camera and the musical number, as well as between the dialogue and the singing that must be translated meticulously in order for a success. I keep asking myself why it is that musicals work better on stage than they do on screen and what it comes down to is that stage musicals, like all stage shows, rely on a greater suspension of disbelief for which an audience has an easier tolerance for when an actual human is standing in front of them. Movie musicals, however, rely on suturing a viewer into the narrative and breaking a newly constructed reality with musical breaks. I thought this blogpost made a good point: we can look at actors in cat costumes on stage and take no issue with willingly pretending that they are singing cats for two hours, but when we see actors as cgi-rendered cats on a movie screen it’s just silly — and if you think about it, it would not be any better or worse if they were onscreen in practical costumes. Thus comes about the “realist musical” which takes status quo normality and gives it an occasional musical break — a subgenre which Sondheim mastered very early on with Company — and that’s how we get RENT, a musical which is still….much to the dismay of my theater nerd friends….my least favorite musical ever. It advertises itself as being “realistic” and an extension of the reality on the other side of the stage, and yet every movement of the narrative is so forced into place and every line of dialogue and character beat is so far off from authentic human behavior it might as well be a Tommy Wiseau musical that never circles back to be camp. It’s in a weird spot that comes off as contrived on stage and downright corny on screen.
Ok now let’s talk about tick, tick… BOOM! — A movie musical that should be a stage musical, although I don’t think it would be any good either way. It appears the only reason it isn’t on stage is so that Lin Manuel-Miranda can do his “Sunday Brunch” fantasy musical number which a friend of mine very aptly described as “the theater kid’s Space Jam: A New Legacy.” Besides that monstrosity I can’t seem to remember any song beyond the opening number — which admittedly is very good. I find it pretty obvious that Lin is using Larson’s story to capture the spirit of Rent and make it his own, but unfortunately it comes off just as awkward. A trite exercise in capturing one’s likeness and “paying homage” without putting any meat on the bones or taking any risk in the process. One of those movies where the actors have tears welling up in their eyes every scene. You can feel Lin behind the camera saying “we’re bringing Broadway to the movies!” and scraping together every Broadway actor he can as if to recreate the Zoolander 2 comedy tactic of insisting that celebrity cameos and inside jokes somehow equal entertainment, and this insistence of being something much more clever than it is ultimately makes it much smaller and less significant. The overly-digitized and visually flat Netflix original aesthetic that comes with the movie only hinders it further. What we’re presented with in the end is a screen musical about stage musicals that never captures the spirit of what makes stage musicals work: an actual human presence.
And yes, I still hate Rent.