Love. Friendship. Heartache. Loss. A close-knit circle of friends share all these during one year (beginning in 1989) living in New York’s East Village, a rundown neighborhood of squatters, homeless and bohemians who would rather suffer for their art than “sell out” and live a conventional, bourgeois life.
Roger, a struggling songwriter, mourns the loss of his girlfriend from AIDS; he too is HIV-positive. Mark, a filmmaker of sorts, is dumped by his girlfriend, Maureen, who takes up with a lesbian lover, Joanne. Mimi is an “exotic dancer” at a local nightspot—and an HIV-positive heroin addict. Tom is an out-of-work philosophy professor who hooks up with Angel, a drag queen. Both are HIV-positive.
And then there’s Benny. The former group friend is now their enemy because he's working for a wealthy family of real estate developers—as bourgeois as you can get—and wants to tear down the building the friends live in rent-free.
Despite continual squabbles and even betrayal, the friends all remain loyal to one another. When Mimi drops out of drug rehab and vanishes into New York’s netherworld of homeless druggies, the friends team up and scour the city, hoping to rescue her. A group of HIV-positive men and women support and encourage one another.
Some sentiments expressed (“Forget regret/There’s only this/No day but today”) can be admirable or mistaken, depending on the worldview behind them. See my “Conclusion” for more on this.
A funeral takes place in a church—notably without any clergy present or any spiritual concerns addressed. Upon hearing that he is being evicted on Christmas Eve, Roger says, “Happy birthday, Jesus!” Mark speaks of his bar mitzvah and learning to dance from a rabbi’s daughter.
During the musical number “La Vie Bohème” (The Bohemian Life), Mark mockingly gives a Christian benediction (“Kyrie eleison”) as well as a Jewish blessing (“Yitgadal v’ yitkadash”). Because it is Christmas night, he adds, “On this night when we celebrate the birth/In that little town of Bethlehem.” Song lyrics from "O Little Town of Bethlehem" are squeezed in between more mockery and crude expressions.
[Spoiler Warning] Mimi nearly dies and describes her near-death experience. She tells of moving toward a “warm, white light,” where the recently deceased drag-queen Angel was standing (“He looked fabulous”), telling her to go back to her boyfriend.
Rent is built around an in-your-face glorification of homosexuality and lesbianism. Tom and Angel dance and sing a love duet (“Oh, lover, I’ll cover you”). Angel is rarely seen out of drag and acts effeminately. Maureen dumped Mark for Joanne but continues to flirt with both men and women. She makes no apologies for this, singing to a jealous Joanne, “There will always be women ... flirting with me/Take me for what I am/... I can’t be what I’m not/Don’t you want your girl hot?” Maureen and Joanne become “betrothed” and hold an engagement ceremony, which provides an opportunity for the playwright to mock heterosexual expectations.
Maureen moons the camera. She and Joanne grope one another’s buttocks and kiss. Tom and Angel also kiss. Maureen dances the tango suggestively in a skimpy dress and kisses both men and woman dancers. Dance routines have characters simulating sexual positions and movements, including anal sex. Mark makes cracks about erections and masturbation.
Mimi performs an extremely suggestive dance in a skimpy leather bikini. She rubs her crotch when a patron offers her a tip. (Similarly dressed women dance in the background.) During the musical number “Light My Candle” she makes a sexual come-on to Roger. (The song is full of sexual double entendres.) Later she sings, “I’m like a cat in heat.” Other lines celebrate S&M and dildos. When told that Mimi dances at a strip club he frequents, Roger cracks, “I didn’t recognize you without the handcuffs.”
Tom is punched and kicked while being mugged. After a policeman starts swinging his billy club, a riot breaks out, with punching and kicking. Roger gets in a shoving match with a drug dealer. Angel smashes a lock with a trash can, and he sings about a woman offering him money to kill her neighbor’s annoying dog. Squatters throw burning trash from building balconies.
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words and a half-dozen or so s-words. A handful of other profanities also lace the story. God’s and Jesus' names are misused; twice God's name is combined with “d--n.”
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mimi is addicted to heroin, and several scenes show her buying the drug, carrying it in a small plastic pouch or injecting it. In a final sequence, she is ready to give herself an injection, but stops herself, deciding to kick the drug cold turkey. A flashback shows Roger and his deceased girlfriend buying and injecting heroin.
Such depictions are used to roundly condemn hard drugs. Marijuana, on the other hand, is applauded, and a joint is passed around during at least one song.
Vodka is poured. Beer and wine is consumed. People at a reception toast with champagne, although Maureen asks the bartender if she has anything stronger. Mimi sings, “Let’s find a bar so dark we forget who we are.” Characters smoke.
Roger and Mimi both take the drug AZT to treat their HIV infections.
Other Negative Elements
Bohemian living in this story involves breaking the law. Among other things, Tom says he's rewired an ATM so that it dispenses free cash when the password a-n-g-e-l is entered. Because Benny now works for a living, he's called “yuppie scum.”
Rent is based on the Broadway musical of the same name written by Jonathan Larson. (Six of the original actors reprise their roles in this film version.) The musical won multiple accolades, including several Tony Awards and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was based on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème, which itself was based on an 1849 novel by Henri Murger called La Vie de Bohème.
The bohemianism of Murger’s time grew out of the Romantic movement of the late 18th century, a reaction to both the “cold” rationalism of the Enlightenment and the “oppressive” teachings of religion, particularly Christianity. Bohemians attacked the middle class bourgeoisie of their time. They celebrated feelings over facts and presented the artist as a sort of prophet. Murger wrote that bohemians were known for “their merry poverty, for their disregard of money, for the pursuit of music, color and relationships. They are groups that have different priorities than the dominant cultures of their societies, groups that inspire both disdain and envy.”
That background is important because it neatly captures the ethos of Rent. The characters are defiantly anti-bourgeois and anti-authority. Consider simply the opening scene: They feel free to live in buildings they neither own nor have leases to and are resentful of being expected to pay rent. Getting a job is considered “selling out.” As voiced in the main musical number, “La Vie Bohème,” “To loving tension, no pension/To more than one dimension/... Hating convention, hating pretension/Not to mention, of course/Hating dear old Mom and Dad/To riding your bike/Midday past the three-piece suits/To fruits, to no absolutes.”
This worldview taints some otherwise noble sentiments and actions in this story. It’s heartbreaking to see the members of the HIV support group rely on nothing more than vague feel-goodism to get through the day. Beyond that, they seem to have no hope—or even awareness that there is hope. Similarly, advice to forgive past wrongs and to seize the day, otherwise admirable counsel, is rooted in nothing more than mere sentiment.
There’s no doubt that Larson (who died unexpectedly shortly before Rent premiered Off Broadway in 1996) was a skilled writer, and the music of Rent is particularly good. The lyrics, on the other hand, are often questionable, and Larson sneaks a degenerate worldview past undiscerning viewers by means of that great songwriting.
As actor Jesse L. Martin explained, “I think there’s something in the music for Rent that allows people to open up in a way that they wouldn’t if they were just talking. If I just told you that [my character, Tom Collins] has AIDS and that I’m probably going to die and this is my girlfriend, who is a drag queen, it just wouldn’t be the same. But because we’re singing about it, what I’m saying seems a bit easier to take.” Idina Menzel, who plays Maureen, added, “Music has a weird way of sneaking up on people and making them feel something they wouldn’t necessarily feel if they were being preached at.”
Indeed. Whether moviegoers are aware of it or not, they’re being preached at. And this sermon contains a romanticized glorification of a lifestyle—be it homosexuality or what should now be called neo-bohemianism—that despite the movie's upbeat conclusion ends ultimately in hopelessness.