‘Revolution Rent’ Review: Taking the Show South

In the ballad “La Vie Boheme,” a colorful cadre of artists raise a toast to “emotion, devotion, to causing a commotion.” After all, Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking musical “Rent” embodies revolution. In the earnest though narratively clumsy HBO documentary “Revolution Rent,” a director unpacks the relevance of this joyously defiant show when it’s translated to a different language, culture and political landscape.

“Revolution Rent,” directed by Andy Señor Jr. and Victor Patrick Alvarez, depicts Señor’s rocky road to developing Cuba’s first Broadway musical produced by an American company in decades. The film begins with Señor’s background with “Rent” as a performer and his decision, regardless of his family’s protests, to direct a Cuban adaptation. In addition to confronting technical issues, translation adjustments and disagreements among the cast members, Señor is also forced to consider his own heritage and history. Despite the intriguing premise of the film, its cursory and lopsided narrative approach dilutes its salient themes and messages.

The film feels scattered, with the first quarter too heavily reliant on abruptly intercut footage of the original Broadway cast performances, and the rest too shallowly dipping into details of the production’s story before skipping along to the next thing.

And so Señor’s personal narrative shifts in and out of focus — his relationship to the musical and to his Cuban heritage are detailed just enough to leave us wanting more history, more background, more reflection and more depth. Similarly, the brief glimpses into the lives of its cast members, some queer and many impoverished, are compelling, but inconsistent and over too soon.

For a documentary about a substantial staging of a beloved musical, “Revolution Rent” also skimps on the scenes of the final product itself. The production’s Roger singing an impassioned Spanish translation of “One Song Glory”; Señor pushing a cast member into an emotional reckoning with the meaning of the word freedom; the conversations about performing a queer musical in a country that hasn’t had a great track record for its treatment of L.G.B.T.Q. people: These are the kinds of moments that most resonate but are overshadowed by the film’s sporadic approach.

The show “Rent” gave us an onstage revolution, while “Revolution Rent” often gives us an underwhelming translation.

Revolution Rent
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch on HBO.

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