Is ‘In the Heights’ a New Low for Movie Musicals?
There’s no denying that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the freshest voice this century in Broadway musicals. He’s turned hip-hop into a viable narrative vessel that’s as adaptable to U.S. history (Hamilton) as it is to the more personal backdrop of his earlier, and much adored, In the Heights. While Miranda had a hand in this adaptation of his Tony-winning work — and its sheer representational power is to be celebrated — the resulting film is not just disappointing. It’s fraudulent.
The play takes place over the course of three days in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) operates a corner bodega with his lay-about cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), has an unspoken crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a salon technician who dreams of leaving the Heights for the hipper environs of the West Village, and has sold, through his business, a winning lottery ticket to someone in the community.
Nina (Leslie Grace), just home from her second semester at Stanford, is the pride and joy of not only her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) but the entire community. She rekindles her relationship with Benny (Corey Hawkins), a young black entrepreneur who works for Nina’s Dad in the family business (that Kevin is slowly annexing to pay for her tuition costs). At some point there’s a blackout.
Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, the best thing in the film), who has helped raise Usnavi as if he is her own, is revealed as the lottery winner and much time is spent trying to figure out how she is going to split the money to help Usnavi achieve his (American) dreams and Nina to continue her education. And everyone comes together at the end in a celebration of home and roots that’s the basis of so much great American theatre (both musically and otherwise). The play has its issues — the book is too simple and overly sentimental — but the power of the performances and the freshness of its conception triumphs over any of its flaws.
The film compounds them. There’s no rule that says a filmed adaptation of any staged play needs to slavishly follow the plot and cadence of the original. Yet the opening up of In the Heights — featuring an entire number set in and around an enormous public pool and one that utilizes the side of a brownstone as a dance floor for reacquainted lovers — is too much for the aphorisms and insistent aspirational homilies that bubble up from the busyness of Jon M. Chu’s intrusive direction.
The updates to the book and lyrics to contemporize the concerns of the Latinx community are sneakily right (DACA is addressed; there’s an effectively short scene paying homage to famous Latinas). And many of the play’s set pieces — even with different contextualization — truly, well, sing.
The celebration of carnaval amongst different Latinx communities — Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban — is basically a celebration of difference; and the death of Abuela Claudia is filmed up in a way that makes visual, emotional sense (her decision to stay in her body or leave the world is beautifully rendered with the simple use of a long underground subway walkway lit dark red on one end and white/blue on the other).
But too often the sets are distractions from the text or just don’t make any sense. That dance across the face of the brownstone does a disservice to “When the Sun Goes Down,” the beautiful song it’s meant to support. The dancing and singing and homages to Esther Williams and Busby Berkeley in the public pool are just visually confusing (not to mention how uncomfortable some of the performers look immersed waist deep in water). And the other changes are just odd.
Abuela Claudia doesn’t step forward as the lottery winner (it’s a posthumous reveal that’s a convenient plot device that impacts only Usnavi). Vanessa has dreams to become a fashion designer (and, by the look of what she puts together for the big closing number of the movie, a terrible one). Nina doesn’t just decide to go back to school, but to become the voice of legal protections for struggling immigrants. It’s too much, and not enough. If the lead performers were more dynamic, it might fly. Yet none of them make much of an impression (and in a few instances the songs have been adjusted to conform to their vocal shortcomings). The supporting performers — especially Merediz, and Daphne Rubin-Vega (of Rent fame) as salon owner Daniella — are the rare standouts.
“It’s unfair to put any kind of undue burden of representation on In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda has said. “Quiara (Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book) and I are first-generation kids, and we write from our perspective. What we tried to do was grab the things we share. There are so many millions of stories — there’s a song in Heights called ‘Hundreds of Stories,’ but there’s millions of stories — from the cultural specificities of the Puerto Rican-American experience, the Dominican-American experience, the Cuban-American experience, and we couldn’t get our arms around all of that.
“What we can get our arms around is: If you come from somewhere else, what do you share? What do you pass on to your kids? How do you feel at home, or not at home? And have every character wrestle with variations on that question,” he says.
Miranda is right: undue representation is unfair. But that cultural specificity is what gives In the Heights its power. Without it, In the Heights is just another story about anyone from any community trying to fulfill their dreams. Sometimes it gets to you — it’s just human to root for people to triumph over their circumstances — but most of the time it’s a boring, pandering spectacle of banality that’s as significant as the “artwork” of Norman Rockwell.
In the Heights is available to watch on HBO Max and in theaters now.
All photos © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.