Let’s get one thing out of the way first; I love movie-musicals. No matter how many times I see it, I will never fail to present the widest, dumbest grin when Don and Cosmo perform ‘Moses Supposes’ in Singin in the Rain. Movies have a way of making everything feel bigger and movie-musicals take that concept to the next level. A well executed dance number can be a truly magical experience on screen. Given my love of the genre, In the Heights should have been right up my alley.
That’s not to say that Jon M Chu’s adaptation of the play that launched Lin Manuel Miranda into stardom is bad, it’s not. In the Heights is good, but it had an opportunity to be great movie-musical if it had just nailed the movie part.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a corner bodega in Washington Heights left to him by his parents. Life is a grind, but the whole block is in it together as the city faces a punishing heat wave. Usnavi’s place serves as a sort of meeting ground for the community to share their stories and big plans as they wait on the results of a lottery that could change everything.
In the Heights has a lot going for it. The set design is fantastic and the musical numbers are exceptionally well choreographed. Anthony Ramos is a bona-fide star in the lead role and even shines through a stellar supporting cast. Most of all though, In the Heights cares deeply about every fictional person it presents. Every character is given a meaningful arc, a discernible personality and genuine compassion for their personal journey. That sort of depth does so much to make the quiet moments of the film work. Even so, its the big moments that kick the film up a gear.
At it’s very best this is a movie that has dozens of dancers performing synchronized aquatics in a public pool and characters literally dancing up the side of a building. In those sequences In the Heights is transportive. The film’s biggest and brightest moments capture both what is magical about the broadway show and Hollywood blockbusters. Unfortunately those transcendent moments are buried in two and a half hours of other numbers that don’t come close.
The title number that opens In the Heights is big and brash. Over roughly eight minutes Usnavi and the rest of the cast set a manic tone and introduce each unique voice in the film. Immediately following that euphoric introduction comes ‘Benny’s Dispatch’ which, well performed as it may be, is mostly just two characters singing at each other what should be dialogue. Over and over we vacillate between these two very different tones.
For a stage play this rhythm makes sense. Without the trappings, the budget, the flexibility of film, a song like ‘Benny’s Dispatch’ is crucial in setting the stage and maintaining momentum. On the screen though it takes what should be a sentimental moment between estranged paramours Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace) and turns it into something distractingly performative. Therein lies the issue with this film that is so afraid to deviate too far from its theatrical roots.
In the Heights is less adaptation at times than it is a filmed production. Director Jon M Chu makes the absolute most out of the big set pieces but struggles to make the smaller ones feel like they belong. A version of this movie in which all the smaller dialogue songs were subbed out for actual conversations and character building could be so much more engaging.
Very clearly this is a film created by people not only with a great deal of affection for Washington Heights, but for the broadway musical itself. Everyone from cast to crew appears to have put their whole heart into In the Heights and it shows. While that love for the play led to exuberant performances and production, it also created a bit of a bloated film, too hesitant to cut or alter songs. Fealty to the the theatrical production ultimately costs In the Heights a chance feel as essential as the show it adapted.
As much as In the Heights may not have hit all the notes for me, it is still a tremendous accomplishment. Its best moments reach levels that few other films can and as a result we should be seeing a lot more of Anthony Ramos in big roles. Even the progress in representation that In the Heights represents is alone worth celebrating. This is a good movie, albeit one being held back from greatness. 7/10