I certainly had quite a lot of fun with this one! That’s not to say In the Heights is anything new or profound when it comes to Hollywood musicals, but when it comes to just having a great time in a movie theater, this delivers what was very much needed after being deprived of cinema for over a year. We all could sure use some awesome songs that you can’t help but bob your head to then erupt into applause for, to the same energy of watching Hamilton on Disney+, but this time at a grander scale!
With this being a musical, there’s a lot of talent: singing, dancing, rapping, all of which looks and sounds great! And to boost, the ensemble actors break dance, do tricks with sparklers, and a couple even twist their double-jointed arms! It’s all a grand warm feast for the eyes and soul. Even better, the spectacle proves progression past a recent period in Hollywood where name recognition in musicals was more important than actual talent (*cough* Les Misérables). Several passionate filmmakers are finally looking into getting people who aren’t necessarily household names but can do all that is needed for the performance-heavy role. It’s like the Golden Age of Hollywood when so many of the productions were musicals, many of which greenlit specifically because they had a certain talented star in the studio’s contract. In fact, it’s better, because while those old movies had phenomenal dancing and singing, they suffered from overly theatrical acting. In the Heights though has both great talent and exceptional acting. The casting crew clearly put in a lot of work to seek out the best talent, then exploited those talented players in every corner they could squeeze some energy.
Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) starts the film with the hose spraying, gate closing, and keys jingling all to the beat of the music. Although not live on stage, there’s something about the way it’s done in this two-dimensional medium that actually heightens the excitement. It does what can’t happen on stage: choreographing these amazing songs to clever tricks in editing and cinematography. Chu understands that unlike theater, film isn’t limited to a single set, it can go wild with special effects and a wide variety of setups. Among those setups include a musical number in a swimming pool of symmetrical aerial shots, another is a bunch of costumed dancers in a train station, another is defying gravity to dance on the wall of a building against the sunset, another is cold light at the blackout to represent the darkest point of these characters seeking out their “sueñitos,” the only bad choice is these creepy mannequin heads coming to life during a song in a beauty salon, but for the most part, the songs all are quite fun.
Although it’s not all great, mainly in how this entire film is told; essentially, the main protagonist is at a coast with four kids, and he tells them his story about living in Washington Heights, except these scenes don’t work because the four kids are such terrible actors. As someone who saw the stage show, there was no beach setting; maybe it was added here as a creative liberty to set this apart from the stage show, but it doesn’t quite work. Not much was done to enhance the story from the show, especially when it came to altering it to fit in better with the way stories are told in film. It doesn’t help either that these characters aren’t exactly the most well-rounded nor the most interesting. Between the subplots, the only one that felt personally invested into is the one where a young woman has issues with what her father wants to do about her college acceptance. Even so, it comes across as pretty weak in execution compared to other films with that exact same scenario.
The technical elements don’t help in that either, as there are issues in the lighting- when all the power goes out at night, the limited number of cell phone flashlights used to illuminate the sequence can’t highlight the actors evenly. Some are lit more than others that are next to them, even if the one less lit is the main focus. For the most part overall, the movie’s plain artistic style tries to go big, but can’t even do the bigness right, because of the numerous other technical issues: the aperture losing focus, the awkward CGI while dancing on a wall, the music being louder than the dialogue, stuff like that.
Another issue is the fan service this seems to flaunt toward the legendary Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mind behind the original show. He makes a cameo right away less than five minutes in as a street salesman who sells shaved ice, and later, he gets a whole stinking song about it. It’s not something that affects the plot in any way—if that number got cut entirely, nothing would be affected. He appears a number of more times throughout the feature, but his cameo certainly overstays its welcome. It would be better if he were just kept to one brief scene where he gets either no lines or a small number of lines, not an entire song without a purpose.
Not counting Miranda, there’s many other hidden details that were cleverly handled, my personal favorite being “You’ll be Back” from Hamilton playing as an Easter egg over a phone. For details designed to set up the world and the circumstances, there is particular attention paid to the cultural food at a big get together that are implemented to complement the tension-heavy scene. In terms of structuring the narrative so it’s all easy to follow, the days are counted down until the big blackout, accompanied by a weather report for each day. So despite the shortcomings, minds should be blown to see how cinematic this Tony-winning stage show has become.
In the Heights if nothing else should stand as a grand achievement in directing that will remind us all of why going into movie theaters as opposed to staying at home in front of a computer screen is so much better! When was the last time you went for a day out just to have some fun?
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!