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by Laura Kyle

How do you figure a last year on earth?

The original recording of Rent is simply one-off, but I’m thrilled to share that the new film soundtrack pretty much rocks, too.

From the sound of it, composer Jonathan Larson’s characters (now cultish icons of the 90’s and early millennia) are intact.

Taye Diggs (landlord Benny), Wilson Heredia (drag queen Angel), Jesse Martin (Angel’s lover Collins), Idina Menzel (loud-mouthed Maureen), Adam Pascal (songwriter Roger), and Anthony Rapp (documentarian Mark) lead the preposterously high caliber cast and were all on stage singing their hearts out, as modern Bohemians barely scraping by in the fringes of New York City, when Rent debuted at the Nederlander Theatre (where the show still runs today). But I predict newcomer Rosario Dawson (as the tantalizing and wild Mimi) will steal every scene she’s in. Her vocals are sly and sexy and she more than keeps up with her Broadway trained co-stars.

Only Tracie Thoms (Maureen’s lover Joanne) and Dawson aren’t principals, and Thoms still sports a background in musical theater. So, what does this mean for you, the listener? This means you’re going to be treated to extraordinary vocal talent; in my opinion, musical ability quite like this has never been featured in cinema before.

This realization will hit you right at the opening track, “Seasons of Love” – yeah, that ditty even non-Rentheads can sing along to…525,600 minutes! The gifted singers blend powerful musical theater style belting with undeniable soul and enthusiasm, especially Thoms, who takes over the end of Rent's most recognizable theme, echoing the spirited chorus. Martin makes his intro here as well, but you’ll luckily hear much more of him later. It won’t be the last you’ll hear of “Seasons of Love” either.

Second up is the main title theme, the moody pop rock tune “Rent,” sung by Pascal and Rapp. It’s the real beginning of the film. Despite the downplayed instrumentals, which are not as sharply melodic as in the original, “Rent’s” not too different from its Broadway counterpart… except Pascal’s got a clear tone. He’s abandoned his raspy rocker timbre from the old days of Rent and Aida (Elton John's hit Broadway musical that Pascal starred in).

The third number, “You’ll See,” shows off Digg’s smooth, elegant voice, but it’s more of an aide to the plot than a standalone track. Then, there’s “One Song Glory,” Pascal’s heartbreaking ballad, anthem even. But in the film, there’s something missing. This time around, the guitar has more of an electric vibe and Pascal has a curiously light interpretation. His plea for an original song that will “redeem [his] empty life … before the virus [AIDS] takes hold” is subtler and more upbeat than when he bellowed it almost ten years ago. I’m a tad disappointed that “One Song Glory” falls short of yanking on those heartstrings. This is a good song to do a side-by-side comparison with the original of, because it gives the listener a chance to see what the newer, refined soundtrack is ultimately lacking: a more tender, unprocessed honesty.

“One Song Glory” is followed up with “Light My Candle,” another song that, despite Dawson’s lusty vocals, is not an improvement upon the original soundtrack. Again, the instrumentals are weakened, overpowered by percussion that’s friendlier to rock fans. So, the flirty exchange between Pascal and Dawson is not as exciting or melodious. Yet, it’s not half-bad either.

There are way too many tracks for me to pick each one apart individually (this is going to be a long movie, folks!), so I’m going to rush onto “Out Tonight,” which Dawson performs flawlessly. I even like her version better than Daphne Ruben-Vega’s (Nederlander’s Mimi)!

“Another Day” (the big ass confrontation between Pascal’s past and present, impulse and logic) is also quite good, but once again – the instrumental beat and commanding music get undercut by a more generic orchestration and laid-back approach to the sung dialogue.
“Santa Fe,” on the other hand, couldn’t be better and “I’ll Cover You” is perfect – Heredia’s ultra-tenor pipes beautifully contrast Martin’s deep bass voice. Finally, “Over the Moon” tops off the first disc, with Menzel giving her a cappella all, screaming her character’s signature indictment of American commercialism.

One of my favorite tracks, the tongue-twisting ode to everything unconventional, “La Vie Boheme,” begins the second disc, and it’s all I could ever ask for really. To riding your bike, midday past the three-piece suits! Indeed.

“Without You,” the sweet and melancholy duet between Dawson and Pascal, like “One Song Glory,” isn’t nearly as emotional as it was on Broadway, but it’s not even quarter-bad. “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” sneaks up on the listener and makes up for any lack of sincerity thus far; it’s a stirring number that just might make me cry when I watch it onscreen. “Goodbye Love” is also a great climactic piece that leads into one of Rent's most popular songs and one of its final overt social comments, “What You Own” (with the lyrics: I don’t own emotion…I rent!), and then of course, there’s the dazzling finale, which also unfortunately features the somewhat obnoxious “Your Eyes” (with intentionally endless, predictable rhymes). I've never liked that song.

There’s no reason to even talk about the bonus track “Love Heals.” It’s remarkably unimportant and unneeded.

From the opening track to the finale, the lyrics haven’t really changed, except now they’re crisper. This is phenomenal to me. I have no clue what Chris Columbus will do with Rent, from a visual standpoint – some songs I like on the CD may not have the same effect on the big screen and weak songs from the soundtrack may suddenly make sense when I see them performed in the film.

It’s also fully possible that I’ll hate the movie and love the soundtrack.

But even though a few songs were cut (“Contact” most notably), the Hollywood blockbuster wannabe Rent is still the same story I remember, told the same way, by the same people. And based on a statement by the family of now deceased Jonathan Larson, the final product’s supposedly true to Larson’s original vision.

What Rent is in danger of though, is not appealing to casual viewers who haven’t even heard the term “Renthead” before. To some, the entire motion picture may embody every kind of cheese there is and the talented vocalists may be undermined by their, well, what some might deem – “whiny” – singing.

As for me, I’m looking forward to a super fun outing, rich in inspiring human drama and musical shenanigans.

And now back to our regularly scheduled sonic death monkeying.

Until then...

Figure in love.

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originally posted: 10/12/05 14:45:45
last updated: 10/13/05 01:44:59
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