In The Heights
Well, I don’t think that I could have higher expectations for a movie than this one. Last year I decided that the filmed version of Hamilton was my #1 choice for the entire year, a reflection on what I could accurately call my obsession with Lin-Manual Miranda’s masterpiece. The music, the characters, the themes, and the melding of all of them into this one powerful package, it was a two-and-a-half hours of sheer artistic perfection, something I do not say lightly.
But before there was Hamilton there was In The Heights, Miranda’s other highly-acclaimed musical, and one with, arguably, a much more personal connection to the man. In The Heights was something I was aware of purely through Spotify, but what I heard I liked: a sweeping musical journey through one of the more culturally unique parts of a culturally unique city, even if it was perhaps more rooted in a no-longer-existent nostalgic past. A film version, starring one of the major reasons Hamilton was so good, was always going to attract the eye. Moreover, I can’t be the only one thinking that the whole production could be viewed as a bit of a trial run for seeing Hamilton get a more traditional film adaptation. Was In The Heights another musical phenomenon from Miranda, or the earlier work that was just prelude to greatness?
Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) contemplates life in the Washington Heights area of New York City, with its many diverse residents: Taxi-company owner Kevin (Jimmy Smits) who is selling off his business bit-by-bit to finance the Stanford education his high-achieving daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), ignorant of her miserable feelings on the matter; Kevin’s employee Benny (Corey Hawkins) who yearns to make a name for himself in business while pursuing Nina romantically; Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) who are moving their hair salon on account of growing gentrification; and Claudia (Olga Merediz), the community’s unofficial grandmother who remembers her Cuban heritage while watching the neighbourhood change around her. Usnavi himself dreams of returning to his native homeland of the Dominican Republic with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), when not mooning over would-be downtown fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera): over the course of a few heatwave-filled days, the community ponders where they are, where they want to be and who they want to be with.
In The Heights is a fun piece of work no doubt, a refreshingly evocative look at minority life in the United States, that is fully sure of itself and the kinds of things that it wants to portray. It does a brilliant job in hooking you in very early, and is able to just about keep you engaged all the way to the end. It has its issues, as I will get into, but this is the kind of film that I think should be required watching in this day and age, for its efforts to marry appreciation of tight-knit community with a melding pot of culture.
There is a lot to unpack here, as you might well expect for a film this long (pro tip: if you’re film is over two hours, consider a five minute intermission. If it’s over 2.5, it should be required). The good is that In The Heights is able to present a dazzling kaleidoscope of story, taking in a great many characters all with their own troubles and romances and dreams, marrying them to song and dance in a way that is, in all of their own merits, fantastically entertaining. Usnavi’s dreams of going back to a home he barely remembers, Kevin and Nina’s disputes over her future, Claudia’s past clashing with what is left of her future, these are all narratives that In The Heights does a very good job of setting up and following up on in the course of its lengthy running time. There’s aspirations, there’s heartbreak, there’s traditional romance and heaps of sexual tension, even slapstick comedy gets a look in with the battle of the piragua man with Mr Softee. Most of all there is a story about the importance of community and finding ones tribe: something we could all stand to be reminded of occasionally. Things unfold more as a series of individual vignettes then as a overtly connected narrative, but In The Heights is able to sustain itself for a lengthy time with that kind of structure.
This adaptation makes the wise choice to update things a little, changing the song order around a bit and introducing two new developments to its plot, namely a discussion on DACA as it pertains to Washington Heights’ undocumented, and casual racism experienced by its inhabitants when outside of the bubble. The first change is certainly a worthy update to add since the time of the stage musical’s debut – 2007 – and adds a needed political element to make the film resonate a bit more with an audience that has spent four years dealing with an racist President. The second also worked a lot for me: instead of Nina flunking out of Stanford because she has to work two jobs to pay her way, she’s instead driven out by microaggressions of a racial nature. The idea of someone so used to the vibrant community that is this Washington Heights floundering in an environment where ignorant white people assume she is a waitress and/or a thief, rings very true to me, and I think adds something much more sympathetic to the Nina character (who can otherwise seem like a one-note daughter/girlfriend). A few nods here and there to the perils of gentrification – a heartbreaking scene sees Claudia unable to afford the services of a brand new dry cleaners that has just opened up in the area – also serve to make the point of the importance of that kind of community.
The problem that In The Heights has, and what really hamstrings it drastically, is the manner in which it just runs out of momentum around halfway through. The film reaches what appears at first glance to be a perfect “Turn Into Third Act” set-piece with a nightclub-based sequence, but this occurs halfway through a near 160 minute running time: everything that happens afterwards is mostly just drawn-out reaction to the events of that sequence, and In The Heights thus spends a great deal of time just spinning its wheels. The second half contains a lot of scenes (and a lot of songs) that are mostly about the various sub-plots getting a satisfying conclusion, while the main perils of the story vanish into the ether. We go from wondering how the various characters and their own narratives will play-out to sort of waiting for the conclusion, which is very far away. In The Heights never loses you, but it does come close enough that you will wonder why some additional shaving could not have been done.
That, and there are a few of the many, many characters that start to grate on you the more that time passes. Chief among them is Vanessa. I don’t know what it is about seeing the characters, as opposed to just hearing them, but Vanessa comes off really badly in this adaptation. In a world filled with people who are pro-active, positive-thinking, or are dealing with the kind of big-issue problems that justify a degree of mopiness, she instead comes off as rather annoying with a downbeat, cynical attitude. I don’t really have the space to get into it in too much detail, but it suffices to say that In The Heights wants you to recognise and appreciate Vanessa for her ambition, for the way that Usnavi views her, for her artistic talent, but I think all too easily you will instead see mopiness when the road to those ambitions have roadblocks, a degree of emotional manipulation played out several times over with Usnavi and an artistic talent that we just don’t see enough of. She also has some of the biggest clunkers in terms of lines, not least a repeated refrain that the Heights’ denizens are “powerless” during the blackout (it’s a metaphor idiot!). Other characters have similar issues, lacking the time and space to let their redeeming qualities out enough: Kevin in his over-protectiveness, Benny in his commitment to his work that goes too far, etc, etc.
The ensemble cast does an excellent job here all the same. Ramos proved his acting and singing chops for productions like in his excellent work on Hamilton, and really steps into the Usnavi role – once held by Miranda of course, who takes a smaller, arguably superfluous, role of a piragua seller in this one – with aplomb. There’s a lot of work that’s required there, as a main character, as a one-man chorus, as a love interest, as a surrogate father, but Ramos is able for it, with oodles of charm in every bright smile. Others have less time but make no less of an impact: stand-outs for me were Diaz as Sonny (bringing a lot of depth to that character with the new material), Merediz as Claudia (her “Paciencia Y Fe” is probably the stand-out musical performance of the film) and Hawkins as Benny, a guy who lacks much of his own agency, but works his way into other peoples plots and songs effectively.
It’s a musical so I need to spend a bit of time talking about the music. Things start off with a bang with the titular song, which comes close to “Alexander Hamilton” in terms of getting needed exposition out of the way quick and in an entertaining manner. Things follow on quickly: Nina’s despair in “Breathe” the ode to female gossip in “No Me Diga”, Vanessa’ dreams outlined in “It Won’t Be Long Now” all good “I Want” examples. Things really kick into gear with the excellent set-piece of “96’000” as the neigbourhood wonders about a lottery win, and then a more focused affair between Benny and Nina in “When You’re Home”. A nightclub and a blackout form a really well choreographed song-and-dance number to take us to the end of what should be Act One, and In The Heights is hopping.
The less good on the musical front, in line with some of what I said earlier, is mostly in the back half of proceedings, when In The Heights starts to slow down and struggle more with marrying song to narrative progression, a problem Miranda decisively eliminated in Hamilton. Claudia’s “Paciencia Y Fe” is a really well put-together exploration of the emigrant experience in America, and its emotional conclusion towers above some of what follows, like the somewhat forced “Carnaval del Barrio” or the Usnavi/Vanessa focused “Champagne” which really didn’t fit right and didn’t set-up the “Finale” song well enough. In-between is “When The Sun Goes Down”, probably the best of the more quiet songs in the show, replete with the most unique of cinematography.
John Chu’s production is wonderfully directed though. Chu, with a background in musicals, dance and minority filmmaking, is a good choice I feel, and he does his level best to bring this vision of Washington Heights to life. The tight editing and choreography of the title track sets us up nicely, and there follows a number of really breathtaking visuals moments: the blackout montage following the naked sexuality of the nightclub sequence; Claudia’s deathbed remembrance of her life, transposed to the reality of the New York subway; Benny and Nina’s dance on the side of an apartment block. Obviously it is the music that really brings In The Heights to where it needs to be, but I did appreciate Chu’s work a lot, and the many production details in make-up and costuming that ensured every character and location popped just right, whether it is Usnavi’s bodega or Vanessa’s art studio.
I came out of In The Heights very much thinking more of it than I do right now I suppose: it’s not a film that does very well with long-term thinking. That’s because it struggles with its pacing in the second-half, having front loaded the opening hour with its best songs. Some of the characters could be more ingratiating, and of all the films to submit to the current trend of excessive running times, this is one that needs an intermission most of all. But there is still so much good here, that I think decisively outweighs the bad. The cast is great, the songs are brilliant, the film looks spectacular and it gives us a diverse space to tell an interesting story, with much-needed examination of themes related to the undocumented and to minorities more generally. This may well have been the arena where Miranda honed his craft ahead of hitting all of the right notes with Hamilton, and as such it has its issues: but it is still a fine example of musical-on-film, that anyone can find something to enjoy in. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).