Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning stage play, In the Heights, is adapted to the big screen to bring that summer blockbuster feeling. Unfortunately, charm, glitz, and glamour are not enough to lighten up this much anticipated musical.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has been in the spotlight ever since his first big hit stage play, In the Heights, arrived on Broadway in 2008. Bring it On followed, and years later, he delivered his critically adored Hamilton, which people still rave on about years after its release, thanks to Disney’s live stage recording of it. So, a film adaptation of In the Heights was bound to happen; people are keen to see it as it jumps on the Hamilton success train.
Set in Washington Heights, New York, where the scent of the early morning coffee sways around in the air near the 181st St. subway stop, where colourful and bright arrangements round up a community of friendly, tight-knit people. In the centre of this story is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a likeable and charming bodega owner who sings and desires a new and better life and saves every dollar he has to make his dream come true.
Many musical films released these days seem to be poorly put together. However, there are a few exceptions; the Oscar-winning La La Land (2016) and Chicago (2002), as well as the lesser-known Anna and the Apocalypse (2017). In the Heights had tons of potential with a great songwriter and wordsmith, a dedicated and charming cast, and good source material to back it up. It had a lot behind it to help it come together quite nicely, but it does not click well because of John M. Chu’s directorial decisions.
In the Heights features a great subtext towards being proud to be Latino, and it is a celebration of the heritage and culture. Songs like “Paciencia y Fe” and “Carnaval del Barrio” showcase that and blossom into the screen, making for two of the best moments in the film. However, something stands in the way; the film doesn’t have much of a plot. It is also too long for its own good, and the pacing does not help, making it feel like a four-hour heap instead of a two-and-half-hour musical romp.
The musical numbers may have pizzaz, especially the “96,000” piece set in the community swimming pool, but they do not grasp you as intended because of the poor editing. It seems like the filmmakers tried to put everything they could on screen, resulting in a messy mishmash. One song even had no reason to be in the film, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Piragua”; serving as a vanity piece for the man who created all this back in the late 2000s. Furthermore, some songs feature rap-style verses as popularised in Hamilton, which felt a bit tiresome.
Even though he is not the film’s main character and doesn’t appear much in its latter half, the one who shines brightest and uplifts every song with every breath he takes is Corey Hawkins’ character, Benny. He provides the best vocal performance, bringing the most out of each song, perfectly hitting every note. The only problem with his character is that his story arc is left behind and feels incomplete, which seems a bit unjust since Hawkins delivers the best harmonies in the film. You just wish he were around longer to save most of the forgettable songs with his incredible energy.
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera are tremendously palpable as Usnavi and Vanessa. From their first awkward interactions to singing “Champagne” together and sharing their feelings towards each other, their chemistry is entirely intact. Meanwhile, the other characters are not properly developed. Some characters have their own songs yet still feel incomplete once the film reaches its climax. One thing that helps the lack of character development is the chemistry between the cast. It is rare in a movie to see everyone clicking with each other, even though the film is not entirely on point with itself. It feels like they have known each other for years and grew up in the same community.
A cinema experience helps this film, but not to a great extent. John M. Chu might not have been the perfect choice to helm this film; In the Heights feels incomplete in the main aspects where, on paper, it should not have. It has a fair share of emotional and crimson moments, but for the sake of a gut punch; a perfectly linked cast, but lacking in development; outstanding choreography, but the editing and cinematography are forgettable. Most importantly, it lacks the Hollywood musical magic that would have made it glisten. In the Heights may have been a hit on the Broadway stage, but on the big screen, it misses the mark.
Filming for In the Heights coincided with filming for Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, with the two often filming just a few streets apart from each other. Director Jon M. Chu claimed that their sets were so close at one point that the catering truck for Spielberg’s film was in their shots. At one point, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who had done Spanish translations for the 2009 revival of West Side Story, snuck over to their set, getting a glimpse of filming for the song “Maria.”