‘Rent’ (The Film) Is Best Performed Live (By You)

In “Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives” we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss. This week is Chris Columbus’ Rent, based on the musical of the same name by Jonathan Larson.

This is supposed to be a review. Well, let me rewind that a bit. This will be a review of 2005’s above-average-to-mediocure film adaption of the beloved gay musical Rent. It’s just that I have found that most people already have their opinions about Rent well engrained into them before any conversation about the film even begins.

Musical theatre gays roughly born before 1990 long ago swore our allegiance to Jonathan Larson’s original Broadway production. Those of us in who were tweens and teens at the time of its premiere spent our adolescence memorizing the liner notes of its iconic two-disc rust orange CD set, even without being able to travel to New York to see the show, like it was a Bible to a community that we didn’t yet know how to find for ourselves (myself included). In that age group, the film is tolerated, if not also a little bit maligned.

Musical theatre gays born after 1990 grew up on Chris Columbus’ film adaption, and in my experience their relationship to both that film and the musical depends on if they had other gay media to choose from as a teen. For some the film is a cultural touchstone, remembered fondly, but I’ve never heard anyone ever defend Rent the movie on its artistic merits alone with their full chest.

It’s not that Columbu’s adaption isn’t solid — it’s a fairly straightforward recreation of the play, even though it loses some of its spark in translation. The majority of the original Broadway cast reunited for its filming (Daphne Rubin-Vega, the legend, was pregnant at the time and could not reprise her role as Mimi. There were concerns about Fredi Walker’s age to reprise Joanne that I think were unwarranted, no matter how much Tracie Thoms made the role her own over the last 20 years). Still, when you watch it, something feels… off.

Though Rent was always set in the late 1980s, at the time of its premiere in 90s, it felt infinite. By the time of its 2005 film release, already so much had changed in the gay rights movement and the progression of HIV/AIDS treatment, that storyline somehow instead feels crystalized in amber. There are nitpicks I have with the film adaptation’s script. I’ll never understand the decision to force the cast to awkwardly speak lines that anyone who’s ever seen the musical would have already expected to be in their original song form. Forcing an ahistorical gay marriage plot for Maureen and Joanne helps no one, and if anything, zaps the sensuality and heat out their infamous battle duet. But I think it’s the speed of time that most worked to Rent’s detriment. Being an outsider and finding your chosen family is timeless. Somehow with Rent, it felt as if the people who most needed it, now couldn’t quite relate.

That’s ok. Rent does not need to be “timely” to be relatable or adored. Though, 2024’s historic cost of living increases, rapid collapse of social fabric, razor thin margins to poverty, violent transphobia and homophobia, and lack of trust or faith in elected officials to fix these problems looks a lot more like bohemian life in the late ‘80s than we perhaps care to see. I think that 20 years after the film’s release, and nearly 30 years since the play’s premiere, Rent deserves to be reframed instead by looking at a different musical for freaks on the outside that’s stood the test of time, and yes I am talking about The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, first released in 1975 as an independent musical comedy horror to panned reviews, has on lived for nearly 50 years in midnight showings with shadow casts who perform live in front of its screen. Every generation of gay seems to somehow find it, and themselves, anew under its bright lights and rainfalls of popcorn and promises to do the time warp. Even if the specifics of show have become outdated (and they have), the energy beneath has become eternal. And this is where Rent comes in.

Rent will never be a perfect movie. And it never needs to be. Because Rent is best enjoyed singing it loudly at the top of your lungs, dancing until you break a sweat, and the collapsing exhausted against your couch with your best friends. It’s meant to be communal. It should feel tactical and sticky and visceral, not neutrally appreciated from far away on stage or at a theater. For many of us, this is how we first fell in love with the musical in the first place – replaying the soundtrack over and over again until we broke it. And it’s time we return to our roots.

And thus and such, with my official review out of the way, I would like to also present you with this gift. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

How to Perform Rent in Your Living Room as if It’s Rocky Horror Picture Show: A Participation Guide

Overall notes:

  • Singing along to all songs is always encouraged if you know it!
  • You will also need a sturdy chair (or your couch) to serve as a prop for lap dancing and pole dancing!
  • Other props: A glass to use for toasting (let’s be real, just use whatever you’re already drinking out of), a box of tissues

Song Order:

Seasons of Love Opener — Straight forward! You’re going to stand up high school chorus style and square your shoulders, and sing along! You did not escape being a teenage theater gay without learning this song, and now’s the time to show it off.

Rent/Tune Up #1 — In the film, Mark speaks his famous opening lines “December 24th, 9PM/ Eastern Standard Time/ From here on in/ I shoot without a script…” but in the stage musical he sings them, so guess what?? We are going to sing them here! And we’re not done! Any time that any one speaks a line that is sung in the musical, sing it over them!

Rent — When the high energy rock chords come in, HEAD BANG THE SHIT OUT OF IT AND VOCALIZE ALL THE GUITAR CHORDS, Perform at full energy for the rest of the song! Work up a sweat!

Angel and Collins Meet for the First Time — When the scene ends, yell “NOW KISS”

Would You Light My Candle — Mimi is going to blow out her own candle and knock on the wall before the second verse that begins, knock on a hard surface in tune with her beat. At the end of that same verse, Roger is going to say that he knows Mimi from her work at the Cat Scratch Club, but didn’t recognize her without the handcuffs. Use you hands to mime dancing with handcuffs.

Today 4 U, Tomorrow 4 Me — Give a loud, cheering standing ovation when Collins introduces Angel for the first time in her Mrs. Clause drag!! From here it is a choose your own adventure! Did you learn this choreography as a child? You have full permission to do it here! If you didn’t learn the choreography, beat Angel’s drum beat against a hard surface of your choosing (or vocalize it with your mouth). When Angel jumps off the table and back to the floor, EVERYONE CHEER.

Tango Maureen — When Tracie Thoms first appears in her suit and tie, howl (or whatever other respectful thirst sound of your choice). When the tango beat drops, do a bad mime of a tango across your floor. If you know how to do a good tango, do that. When Mark says “it’s hard to do this backwards,” join with Joanne by yelling back “you should try it in HEELS!”

Life Support Meeting — Stand still, listen to the message, repeat the affirmation “No Day Like Today” like it’s a pledge. From here on out, whenever anyone sings it, you’re required to either repeat it back or sing along.

Out Tonight — Mimi is going to slide a dollar between another dancer’s legs, and you will cheer! She will then lick her fingers and slide them between her own legs! Cheer or howl again! On the verse that begins “it feels too damn much like home when the Spanish babies cry” when Mimi crescendos to “so let’s to a bar so dark we forget who we are!” through “I wanna wail at the moon like a cat in heat”, wrap your legs around the armrest of your couch or the seat of hour chair (whichever is comfortable) and… well… lap dance if the mood takes you.

Life Support #2 — Join in the round robin of “Will I lose my dignity/ Will someone care?/ Will I wake tomorrow?/ From this nightmare”

Santa Fe — This is one of the few numbers that are improved by the movie version! Use the back of your chair or couch to support yourself like Collins’ subway pole during the chorus and mimic his dance with Angel.

I’ll Cover U — Give a yelp of joy for the kiss!

The Protest Scene/ Over the Moon — When Maureen shows up on the motorcycle and takes off her bike helmet, SCREAM LIKE A ROCK CONCERT.

Over the Moon — Follow all of Maureen’s instructions in real time. Boo Benny when the audience boos him. And yes, when Maureen tells the crowd to moo like a cow — you will be also mooing like a cow!! MOO

La Vie Bohème — You are not required to stand on a table! SAFETY FIRST! But if your couch supports your weight and you feel comfortable, you’ll know when to hop on it! If you’d rather not stand on furniture, dance around your living room! It’s the end of Act I,  have fun, work up one last sweat!!

La Vie Bohème, Part One — Raise a glass at the end of the first verse and toast “La Vie Bohème” with Mark. You are required to scream-sing “To being an us for once/ Instead of a them!” at full voice with everything that you have!!! Pump your fist in the air and back and yell back “Actual Reality! ACT UP! Fight Back! Fight AIDS!”

La Vie Boheme, Part Two —“To faggots, lezzies, dykes, cross dressers too!” “To people living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease!!”

End of Act I

Take or Leave Me — Sing along to Joanne if you identify as a top and Maureen if you’re a bottom (don’t get mad, this is just silly gay math!). Are you watching with friends or a partner? At the end of the song, pause the movie vote for a winner of the argument! Don’t know the words? Appreciate Tracie Thoms’ biceps when she takes off that suit coat.

Without You —  Get comfortable and bring close your box of tissues, from the Life Support meeting that thins out with each new round of the chorus, to Angel being sick on the subway with only Collin’s to hold him, to Angel getting admitted back into the hospital, it’s only tears from here.

Angel’s Funeral/ I’ll Cover You Reprise — See what I said above about tissues? Sing back the “I’ll cover you” chorus to Collins, if you’re lucky enough to choke it out.

What You Own — Admittedly, this isn’t my favorite number! But after all the intense emotions that proceeded it, it’s a welcome chance to shake off some of the sadness. I recommend that when Mark and Roger reunite at the rooftop at the end of the song, you hop off your couch and start jumping up and down in a circle to sing along with “We’re dying in America at the end of Millennium/ We’re dying in America, to come into our own/ And when you’re dying in America, you’re not alone!!”

The Finale: When Collins shows up and says that he’s reworked the ATM at the Food Emporium to give money to anyone with the code, repeat it back with him and raise a glass to the sky. A-N-G-E-L

I Should Tell You (Reprise) — When Mimi comes back to life, clap just like when Tinker Bell lives in Peter Pan!!

No Day but Today (Reprise) — When Mark starts screening his film, dance around while keeping an eye on the movie-within-a-movie. The milisecond the camera stops at Angel for the last full second… stop dead in your your tracks, no matter where you are, stomp your feet and scream your applause.


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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 700 articles for us.


  1. I don’t have a ton of personal connection to Rent, either the musical or the movie, but what I do have is pretty much all perfectly expressed in this article! I had friends who were deeply into the musical/Broadway album, and they were the same friends I went to Rocky with religiously towards the end of high school, so this melding makes 110% sense to me! So much so that I just shared this with one of them (though that’s not quite as random as it could be, since we are still in contact; it isn’t like we haven’t talked in the intervening 20 years…). 💜

  2. i am a total Rent-head (i saw the show twice on broadway) and the movie is fine. like you, my notes are nitpicky. i have never thought to do the movie like this, and now i may force my family into trying it. the kid already knows most of the music from road trips.

  3. This is literally amazing!

    Completely dating myself here, but I turned 19 several years before the movie was available. I don’t remember if I had seen Rent staged ever at this point, or simply memorized not only the liner notes but also the glossy, made-to-look-like-duct-tape commemorative book I had received for Christmas. But I spent my 19th birthday in a 24 hour Internet Cafe called Innovox in Atlanta performing Rent with the employees and my friend from school all night. We ran around and jumped on the couches and sang all the songs and absolutely blasted the Original Broadway Cast over the sound system. It was one of my favorite birthdays of all time.

    I am also a longtime fan of RHPS and have performed with live casts. Your guide is so spot on and it makes me very badly want to attend a screening of Rent with a live cast and do all of the above!

    Thanks for this huge smile on my face today!

  4. Sorry! One other thought…

    Is the movie as good as the original show? No.

    But before Hamilton changed the game by recording live and releasing it widely, this felt like an incredible opportunity to see the OBC perform the roles they created – albeit years later. They were so iconic in these roles that it was really hard to imagine being satisfied with “movie star” casting. I appreciate that Chris Columbus is a purist and wanted the real thing – even if it didn’t completely hit every note I wish that it had. It felt like an equalizer to be able to see the “real” cast for myself.

  5. It’s been a family tradition to make Rent a singalong for at least 8 years now!

    I first listened to Rent at 6, and the movie came out when I was 8 and I was known to perform ‘Today 4 U’ in my living room. Now every Christmas Eve, my mom and my siblings and I will watch it together, even if it requires video call, and sing our hearts out. We usually pause at the intermission to get the aforementioned “wine and beer!”

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