In 2016 Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz brought some much-needed spice to the movie musical with “La La Land”. The film was a hit with critics and audiences alike and offered proof that the movie musical was still very much alive. And then you have Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”, a Broadway musical that went from Tony Award winner to full-blown cultural phenomenon. Those two productions helped pave the way for a film like “In the Heights”, a new musical that borrows from both “La La Land” and “Hamilton” yet for the most part still manages to make something uniquely its own.
There had been talks of an “In the Heights” film adaptation for at least ten years, but it was the success of “Hamilton” that really got things moving forward. Based on a stage musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Miranda, “In the Heights” is directed by Jon M. Chu of “Crazy Rich Asians” fame from a script written by Hudes and music by Miranda. It’s set in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, a tight-knit and mostly Latino community pulsing with pride, music and culture.
Much like “Hamilton”, Miranda’s music speaks its own unique language, often using rap, singing, and something in between in place a straight dialogue. It’s a skill no doubt, but one that can at times be frustrating and a little exhausting. The movie shines brightest in its big musical numbers where everyone is on their feet and the block bursts with energy and local flavor. It’s that hard-to-define lyrical style (not quite rap, not quite song, not quite spoken word) which turns out to be hit-or-miss. The good scenes crackle with fun free-flowing rhythm. But there are times when you wish Miranda would dial it back and just let his characters just speak.
While Miranda’s lyrics do most of the talking, Hudes gives us some welcomed moments of conversation that help form the backbone of the story. But her writing can be a little shaky, jumping from emotionally rich and moving to on-the-nose and even a bit cloying. Meanwhile the story as a whole struggles to find the right balance of tone. The first half is the best as we hang out with the characters, listen to their stories, and soak in the neighborhood through their eyes, ears, and voices. The final third is all over the place both narratively and tonally. It has several good moments, but much of it feels pasted together and lacks flow. And both Miranda and Hudes fumble their opportunities at political commentary by sloppily wedging in a couple of attempts that couldn’t feel any less organic. One ends an otherwise sublime swimming pool number while the other comes out of the blue and feels completely manufactured.
All that said, despite its hefty two-hour and 20-minute running time, there really isn’t that much story. But you barely notice because Miranda and Hudes do a great job of making us care about their characters and the deep communal bond that connects them. It’s what makes their individual stories both endearing and in some cases heartbreaking. And it’s the characters and our emotional commitment to them that brings Washington Heights to life. The characters ARE the story and everything from Miranda’s music to Hudes’ words to Chu’s camera emphasizes that. Meanwhile a top-to-bottom terrific cast elevate the script and Chu is smart enough to let them take the lead and carry the load.
The story unfolds over several hot summer days before, during, and after a blackout hits Washington Heights. We mostly follow two young couples, both obviously in love but poor at expressing it. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is a bodega owner who has his eyes firmly on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who gives him every opportunity to finally ask her out. The problem is he has big dreams of leaving the Heights and going back to the Dominican Republic to run a beachside business like his late father. She is an aspiring fashion designer with plans to move uptown closer to the industry she loves. The other couple is Nina (Leslie Grace) who has just returned home following a difficult first year at Stanford and dreads telling her father that she is considering quitting. She’s in love with Benny (Corey Hawkins) who works for Nina’s widowed father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and is caught between the daddy-daughter tension.
The stories of the two couples cross over and include many of the same neighborhood people. There’s the aforementioned Kevin who can’t fathom his daughter not going back to California for her sophomore year. We get Usnavi’s fiery teen cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). And the barrio’s matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) who raised Usnavi and almost every other kid on the block. There are the three high-energy gossips who run the local salon (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco). Even Miranda pops up now and then pushing a cart and peddling flavored shaved ice to the local kids. They all form the beating heart of the movie. And led by a star-making turn from Ramos and the eye-opening presence of Barrera, this is easily one of the best ensembles of the year.
While Chu struggles with some awkward pacing on the film’s back-end and his movie is around a half-hour too long, he has no problem pulling us into the titular neighborhood. Alongside his terrific DP Alice Brooks, the pair capture the effervescent spirit of a changing Washington Heights and give us a taste of the music, personality, and culture that is so deeply a part of its identity. At the same time Christopher Scott’s kinetic choreography pops off the screen, mixing with Miranda’s hip-hop and Salsa infused beats to give us the film’s most vibrant scenes (an absolutely electric nightclub fiesta may be my favorite). It all leads to an imperfect yet rousing crowdpleaser that may be the ideal movie for those looking to finally burst out of quarantine. “In the Heights” opens today (June 11th) in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.