(director: Chris Columbus; screenwriters: Stephen Chbosky/musical book music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson; cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt ; editor: Richard Pearson; music: Jonathan Larson; cast: Rosario Dawson (Mimi Marquez), Taye Diggs (Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III), Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel), Jesse L. Martin (“Tom” Collins), Idina Menzel (Maureen Johnson), Adam Pascal (Roger Davis), Anthony Rapp (Mark Cohen), Tracie Thoms (Joanne Jefferson); Runtime: 135; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Jane Rosenthal/Robert De Niro/Chris Columbus/Mark Radcliffe/Michael Barnathan; A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures; 2005)

“The times have changed, but this period piece musical about protesters unfortunately hasn’t.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A rock musical set in the East Village of 1989-90 New York City. The film version, woefully directed by Chris Columbus (“Mrs. Doubtfire”/the first two Harry Potter films) and written by Stephen Chbosky, is adapted from the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical play (an updated rehash of Puccini’s La Boheme) about a group of Bohemians struggling with all of the following: to pay the rent on their communal loft, romance, artistic integrity, drug addiction, earning an income, remaining part of the counterculture movement, political activism, squatters’ rights and AIDS. The central unifying theme was how to survive without selling out to the establishment.

It opened off-Broadway in 1996 and then moved to Broadway, where the popular play ran for nearly a decade and made a fortune. The music and lyrics are by Jonathan Larson (died of an aneurism shortly before the play opened on Broadway). The music was loud and energetic, but not particularly appealing or memorable. The dramatics were stilted, unmoving, and outdated.

The movie opens on a stage, with the main characters lined up singing “Seasons of Love.” It then supposedly moves off stage and becomes a movie (yet never becoming free of being stage-bound, as Stephan Goldblatt’s camera is always static) as it follows a year in the lives of seven friends –straights, queers and bisexuals–living in an artists’ loft building in Alphabet City from Christmas Eve of 1989 to 1990. Straight grungy guitar player Roger (Adam Pascal), a rocker burnout, and the brokenhearted aspiring serious filmmaker Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp), who are struggling to pay the rent or be evicted. Mark’s flirtatious and aspiring singer girlfriend Maureen Johnson (Idina Menzel), who dumped him for a lesbian affair with the possessive Ivy League lawyer Joanne (Tracie Thoms). The heroin addict Mimi (Rosario Dawson), who is an exotic dancer in the Cat Scratch club and falls for Roger but the pull of drugs are too powerful and keep the romance from happening. Fired M.I.T. philosophy professor Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and the drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), who become steady companions after Tom’s roughed up by neighborhood goons on Christmas Eve and Angel comforts him; the two attend life-support meetings together to try and deal with their AIDS. In fact everyone but Mark has AIDS. The villain is Benny Coffin III (Taye Diggs), a former Bohemian and lover of Mimi, and a roommate of Mark and Roger’s who married into money and now is the landlord demanding a year’s rent owed or eviction. Benny is trying to gentrify the neighborhood by introducing a cyberspace enterprise.

Somehow everything seemed phony. The characters (and for that matter the film) become exactly the types they claim to detest–pretenders. These faux bohemia types prattle on and on about such things as infidelity and being true to their art and remaining counterculture heroes, but everything they do seems to have no edge and is more like play acting than real. There were so many scenes that seemed more risible than enlightening, especially those scenes of Mark riding his bicycle through the dirty streets of Lower Manhattan filming the homeless with his Bolex camera as if they were there so he could use them to get his big break. There was also Maureen’s embarrassing “performance artist” number at a protest rally that had no chops.

I never saw the play, but I believe the film must have lost whatever power the play had to keep it going for so long. Maybe Rentheads will be pleased that most of the cast from the play remains the same (Rapp, Pascal, Martin, Heredia, Menzel and Taye Diggs), but they look middle-aged and were hardly convincing as struggling young artists. The film is frozen in the past and when viewed today the diverse characters seem more out of it than hip. The times have changed, but this period piece musical about protesters unfortunately hasn’t.

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