As music videos increased in popularity during the 80s and 90s, the visual grammar of the conventional movie musical changed alongside them. Everything from the earliest sound productions to the collected works of Gene Kelly and Jacques Demy utilised the basic tools at their disposal to create a more vivid sense of place than could be realized on stage, all without distracting from the performers at the center. Musicals, after all, are still about performance, and the more fast and distracting their edits, the less easy it is to appreciate the choreography that goes into an extravagantly staged song and dance number. Music videos don’t have a similar necessity for restraint, which is why the choreography that goes into them can seem like a wasted exercise, the fully rehearsed performances lost via harsh cuts timed to the tempo of a track.
In the Heights is the strongest major studio release of the year so far, a fact that comes in spite of its hyperactive and often inconsistent staging of major numbers. With the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan no longer confined to a restrictive Broadway stage, director Jon M. Chu has thrown everything but the kitchen sink onscreen to create a hyper-stylized sense of place. One gets the sense that, if asked, the director would say that Washington Heights is very much the film’s main character. But in expanding how audiences view the neighborhood for the big screen, seeing the daily lives of characters far beyond the central ensemble, that very idea of the musical as performance can frequently get lost. In the Heights features musical numbers from so many different perspectives that viewers only get a couple of seconds of choreography before swiftly moving away, the kitchen sink approach to staging often making it hard to be fully immersed in a performance –there’s music video-level artificiality in the aesthetics despite the sincerity of the text. In the Heights is still an infectiously joyous and deeply moving musical, but the hyperactive editing too often does the material a disservice.
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The story centers around the neighborhood of Washington Heights, where Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is just weeks away from moving to the Dominican Republic in search of a better life. As the city enters into a heatwave, with a power blackout on the horizon, other tensions come to a head. Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) has returned to the area hiding a big secret — she’s dropped out of Stanford, even though everybody regards her as the smart one who will do great things, causing conflict with her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who is prepared to sell his taxi rank just to fund her education. Usnavi’s crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is finding it impossible to fulfill her dream of becoming a successful fashion designer, unable to afford the price of tuition for a fashion college. And Usnavi’s teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) is reckoning with being undocumented, realising he won’t be able to go to college. As the temperature rises, all these problems and more come out in the open.
It’s all too easy for one to roll their eyes at the prospect of a new Lin-Manuel Miranda project. Hamilton, the cultural juggernaut that succeeded the original In the Heights stage production, received criticism for sympathetic and historically inaccurate portrayals of several less than savory figures, in order to forward a narrative of broad liberal platitudes – reinforcing the beliefs of affluent white audiences who can afford Broadway tickets, rather than challenging them with a more daring historical perspective. As someone with no experience of Miranda’s projects beyond that inexplicable smash, I was surprised by the sheer extent to which In the Heights (a project conceived during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and initially staged during the George W. Bush administration) feels incisive in its social commentary and depiction of the struggles faced by working class families of color. The only suggestion that the film is a historical relic is a passing, mid-song reference to creeping gentrification, still yet to affect the neighborhood.
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The screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who co-wrote the stage production with Miranda, has a lightness of touch with which it tackles major issues; there is an innate awareness that for In the Heights to succeed as a “feel good” story on its own terms, then the odds being triumphed over must be tangible. And as heightened as the film’s reality becomes, depictions of the wealth and race gap in college education, or the legal battle to become a documented citizen, help keep the narrative grounded — there are no clear happy endings to many of the narrative strands, but there is a well-earned bittersweetness from seeing characters coming together to share these battles. Many American musicals focus on the protagonists’ search for a better life, but few do such a good job of depicting an infectious, uplifting community spirit surrounding that. One could successfully argue that In the Heights is the closest thing yet to a contemporary Frank Capra film.
This is helped by a near perfect ensemble who ooze utter charm. As Usnavi, Ramos can often come across in his vocal intonations like he’s trying to mimic Miranda, who originated the lead role on Broadway. But from the second he strides into the bodega and launches into the film’s titular opening number, any criticisms will be moot — Ramos may be playing too close to an earlier performer’s turn, but he boasts none of the unwarranted cockiness that makes Miranda such a testing screen presence. However, it’s In the Heights’ female vocalists that make the biggest impression, with Grace as Nina, Barrera as Vanessa and Olga Merediz as Abuela performing the three most emotionally resonant numbers, all of which dissect the idea of the American Dream from differing angles. One particular musical number, staged as a time-jumping journey through the NYC subway, may be conclusive proof that Jon M. Chu is much more effective at staging routines for ballads, where his hyperactive sensibilities can’t get the better of him.
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It’s something of a surprise to see that Chu, In the Heights’ director, doesn’t have a background in music videos, especially when considering that his first two narrative features were part of the Step Up movie franchise, and that he’s made two separate Justin Bieber documentaries. What is a surprise, however, is that Chu is a semi-professional dancer, even though In the Heights’ most joyous musical numbers are staged in a way that does a disservice to the choreography onscreen. The most notable example of this might be during “96,000,” in which the characters fantasize about what they’d buy with a winning lottery ticket; staged in the middle of a public pool, Chu’s camera struggles to focus on any one performer for longer than a few seconds, sharply cutting at will, never allowing the audience to see the full extent of the choreography. This is, of course, the dilemma with adapting a musical onscreen — with a wider canvas to do the material justice, filmmakers can create a more vivid sense of place, but in a way that does a disservice to the simple joys that come from a song-and-dance movie. Intensely rehearsed dance routines are reduced to mere insert shots, as the characters aren’t in the same field of vision that they would be on stage, and the film races to edit around this.
In the Heights is far from a smooth transition from stage to screen, but the film remains an infectiously charming tale of community, and a far more incisive piece of social commentary than one might expect from the creator of Hamilton.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.