'In The Heights' Makes Some Noise, Spreads Joy On The Big Screen
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu adapt Broadway musical to film
"Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944)
"On the Town" (1949, first time a major studio shot musical numbers on location in New York)
"Royal Wedding" (1951)
"Million Dollar Mermaid" (1952)
"West Side Story" (1961)
Note: Director Jon M. Chu will be on TCM June 11 to discuss some classic films that inspired sequences in "In the Heights"
Before "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda had a quieter success with a musical called "In the Heights," which focused on the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. The musical is now being brought to the screen by "Crazy Rich Asians" director Jon M. Chu.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of "West Side Story" and "In the Heights" arrives as both a harkening back to the old Hollywood musical and a direct challenge to it.
The 1961 film "West Side Story" was an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical retelling Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" with lovers from rival Upper West Side street gangs in New York City. Although most of the film was shot on Hollywood sound stages, the prologue was shot on New York City streets in a way that felt revolutionary.
Originally, the play was conceived as being set in the Lower East Side with a Jewish Juliet and an Italian-Catholic Romeo. But New York's cultural make up was changing in the 1950s and Jerome Robbins decided to change his initial idea and look to making the characters reflect the growing number of Puerto Ricans in Manhattan.
The play and the film challenged the traditional musical formula by confronting social issues ranging from immigration and racism to economic inequality and gang violence. Rita Moreno made history as the first Puerto Rican actress to be nominated for and to win an Academy Award for her role as Anita.
But looking at "West Side Story" from today, the film is also problematic, most notably in terms of the casting of white or non-Latino actors to play the Puerto Rican characters including the lead role of Maria (Natalie Wood in "brownface") and the key supporting role of Bernardo (played by George Chakiris).
So to have "In the Heights" arrive in the year that "West Side Story" celebrates its 60th anniversary is a great way to see not just how far Hollywood has come but how much farther it still needs to go. Plus, the Steven Spielberg remake of "West Side Story" arrives this year with diversity in front of the camera if not at the helm.
"In the Heights" opens with a request for a story. "Once upon a time," we are told, "In a faraway land called Washington Heights …"
Washington Heights is indeed faraway from both Hollywood and the mainstream media’s representation of Latinx culture. And this 2021 film also feels faraway from what Washington Heights once was, so in a way it is a bit of a time capsule and, as re-imagined by Chu for the screen, it is also tinged with a mix of Hollywood magic and magic realism.
The sprawling story tries to encompass every aspect of the Heights, from corner stores and nail salons to street artists and the piragua guy. At the center is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) who dreams of leaving the Heights to return to the Dominican Republic, where he likes to recall as the best of times. But there are others with dreams as well. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) wants to design clothes, Nina (Leslie Grace) struggles with her desire to go to college, Benny (Corey Hawkins) who wants to excel at his job, and more.
The irresistible attraction of the film is two fold. First it gives us a glossy, big budget film about a diverse community we don’t often see highlighted. And second, the energetic, pulsing soundtrack grabs you and propels you even when the 143-minute running time starts to drag.
Making some noise
Chu has a background in movie musicals with credits in the "Step Up" franchise and on the Justin Bieber documentary. As he reveals in his upcoming introductions on TCM, he also wants "In the Heights" to pay homage to the musical that came before. So there is a pool number that recalls both Ester Williams and Busby Berkeley as well as a gravity defying dance that reminds us of Fred Astaire in "Royal Wedding"
The film, however, serves up a mixed bag with some numbers exploding with originality and flights of fancy while others feel flat with the camera planted in the audience and performers just singing into the lens. The film is at its best when it is pushing the bounds of reality. One of the truly stunning numbers involves Abuela Claudia (played by Olga Merediz, who originated the role on Broadway) remembering her past in Cuba. The sequence is visually gorgeous, evocative of old Cuba, and beautifully choreographed.
But I was less impressed by production numbers where Chu just tries to cram as many dancers as he can into the frame and then overcuts to give it more pace. Having just watched "Singin' in the Rain," I have it fresh in my memory how Gene Kelley wowed us with wide, uninterrupted takes so we could revel in the dance. Chu does this for some dances but not for all, and with the high energy music and choreography, Chu doesn't need to do rapid cuts to keep our attention.
As someone who was born in New York, one thing I was disappointed in was that when Nina on two occasion urges us to listen to her city, we don't hear anything that sounds like New York. Where are the sounds of taxis honking, sirens wailing, a diverse array of voices mixing and swirling from the street and up into windows, garbage trucks, basketballs, so much. While the California born and raised Chu conveys the sort of surreal, fantasy world of New York, he is not as skilled at conveying the grit and feel of the city as perhaps a native New Yorker like Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese might.
But despite some shortcomings, "In the Heights" proves appealing and brings the play to the screen with vibrancy and great joy, plus it gives voice to characters that too rarely get center stage.
"In the Heights" is streaming on HBO Max but do yourself a favor and show your support for movies on the big screen by going out to a cinema to see this one. It plays so much better on a big screen like an old MGM musical.