The New York theater scene of the 1990s produced two huge and self-consciously important plays. One of them, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, was six hours long and became a lightning rod for gay-haters and religious nuts everywhere. The musical flipside to Kushner’s epic was Jonathan Larson’s Rent, a rock opera that is still running in New York after nearly 10 years. Like Angels in America, Rent was a product of its zeitgeist, and both plays increasingly seem like period pieces.

Rent has a fanatical following, but the play, with its interracial cast of gays, lesbians, HIV-positives and drug addicts, still has the power to make people get up and walk out. I was gratified to note, at a screening I attended recently, a steady trickle of disgruntled viewers heading for the exits. My favorite early departure came during “La vie boheme,” a big production number in which our bohemians celebrate their superior mode of existence:

Compassion, to fashion, to passion when it’s new
To Sontag
To Sondheim
To anything taboo

Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham and Cage…

Two well-turned out ladies left when political performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel) dropped her pants and stuck her pasty, tattooed buttocks into the camera. Evidently, it’s still possible to épater le suburbeoisie.

For those who are not quite in the know, Rent is a rock opera that’s loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohéme, a tale of Paris garret-dwellers at the close of a different century. Where the subterraneans of the Latin Quarter burned their books for warmth and suffered from tuberculosis, Jonathan Larson’s updated smarty-pants torch their screenplays and band flyers for warmth and walk the streets in the shadow of AIDS.

The film’s director, surprisingly, is Chris Columbus, taking a walk on the wild side after a career marked by Home Alone movies. Despite his family-friendly pedigree, Columbus shows an unexpected affinity for East Village squalor and unorthodox sexualities, and he includes reasonably unvarnished shots of late-stage AIDS sufferers and overdosing addicts.

Rent‘s ensemble cast is headed by Mark (Anthony Rapp), a nice boy from Connecticut who was recently dumped by the fickle and self-important Maureen. With his 16mm camera in tow, Mark provides our window into East Village bohemia, which includes his roommate Roger (Adam Pascal), an aspiring musician who is HIV positive. While Mark despairs over the past-due rent, Roger embarks on a relationship with the girl downstairs, a nightclub dancer named Mimi (Rosario Dawson).

Their best friends are a slacker philosopher named Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and his girlfriend Angel (Wilson Heredia, in a charismatic performance that sets the golden standard for transvestites with golden hearts). Taye Diggs brings the evil as landlord Benny, while Tracie Thoms plays Maureen’s new love interest. (Almost all of the principal actors are veterans of the original Broadway production. Dawson is the notable exception, replacing the beloved Daphne Ruben-Vega who presumably is too old to play the 19-year-old Mimi.)

There’s very little in the way of a book in this musical–almost all of it is sung, at great volume. Although the songs have flair and sharp, Sondheim-like lyrics, they have little relationship with the music New York hipsters were actually listening to, from Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and Notorious B.I.G. to Beck, Portishead and Stereolab. Larson’s score contains the odd tango and gospel tune, but otherwise his songs tend to be the big loud rock numbers that have entertained tourists in the theater district for decades.

Although Rent is a movie of a play that premiered only a decade ago, it already feels like a document of another era. The play is set over the course of a year, from Christmas 1989 to Christmas 1990, a time when AIDS was ravaging the artistic community and college kids were afraid to venture to the dark, dangerous East Village alone. It was the era of Do the Right Thing, the racial attacks in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach, the Central Park jogger rape and the Crown Heights riots.

Five years later, things were already changing. A charmless prosecutor named Giuliani was the mayor, and Times Square was being cleaned up. Real estate speculation was out of control and the East Village artists who weren’t getting rich on Internet start-ups were chased across the river to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

It was around that time that The Village Voice ran an impossibly sad story about a musical play called Rent. This hot new downtown play had completed its final dress rehearsal to a standing ovation from the invited audience. Later that night, however, Jonathan Larson, its 36-year-old creator, died in his apartment of an aortic aneurysm. The following night, on what was to be the play’s glorious opening, the stunned, grieving cast simply gathered on the stage and sang the songs for the audience. Fortunately, the truncated life of Jonathan Larson has had a happy postscript: rave reviews, an uptown transfer to a long-term lease on Broadway, touring shows and now, the movie.

But even in that first winter of 1996, Rent felt dated, uncool and slightly insulting. A musician who dined on a bottle of beer and a can of beans financed with subway busking in sub-freezing temperatures didn’t have any need for a Broadway musical treatment of his poverty. What was worse, however, was the feeling that Rent was selling a commodified version of New York’s cultural vitality to tourists at $75 a ticket, inside Giuliani’s new Disney-financed theater district. Rent‘s profitable insipidness was an ominous harbinger of things to come at a time when actual artists were struggling to continue living in the city.

I don’t bear any pointless grudge against Rent, though. Just as I appreciate the moment in Rent where we’re given a forbidden glimpse of the Twin Towers, I’m grateful to the musical as a totem of a bygone era. Today, the downtown Manhattan scene that was disappearing even as the play opened is all but gone. Of course, somewhere else a new generation of artists is making a scene, and someday somebody will tell us about it.