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Non-Review Review: In the Heights

When it premiered, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights was a radical piece of work.

Miranda had begun working on the musical when he was in his sophomore year of college, producing an eighty-minute version of the play in 1999. He would take a prototype of the completed musical to Waterford, Connecticut in 2005. The show would move Off-Broadway two years later, and would open on Broadway in February 2008. It was a move that very much announced the arrival of Miranda as a serious talent, and would serve as a springboard to his later success with Hamilton.

“There’ll be dancing…
Dancing in the Street…”

In the Heights is set against the backdrop of Washington Heights, a neighbourhood on the north west side of Manhattan. Inspired by Miranda’s own experience as a Puerto Rican immigrant, the musical follows the inhabitants of the neighbourhood as they navigate a changing world. The story is told through the eyes of Usnavi, the young owner of a small bodega who dreams of returning to his home in the Dominican Republic, but who needs to find a way to express his feelings for Vanessa, who is considering a move of her own to the West Village.

Miranda wrote In the Heights as a very pointed response to traditional staged musicals like West Side Story. It’s no small irony that, more than twenty years after it premiered, the film adaptation feels as much like a traditional musical as any of the classics that Miranda had railed against.

Miranda’s goal with In the Heights was to create a musical that more accurately reflected the community in which he had grown up. He wanted to reject stereotypes of that community as gang members or criminals or drug addicts. Crucially, he wanted to celebrate the voice of that community. With its hip-hop sensibility, its diverse cast, its fusion of different languages and cultures, In the Heights felt like a breath of fresh air when it arrived on Broadway.

As with Hamilton, In the Heights feels like a work of the Obama era. The show opened on Broadway in February 2008, a few months before Obama officially secured the Democratic nomination. Miranda would become part of the narrative of those eight years. While he premiered In the Heights at college, he famously performed the first song from what would become Hamilton at the Obama White House. Miranda’s work is tied up in that cultural moment. Even the version of Hamilton streaming on Disney+ is a relic of the Obama era, recorded over three days in June 2016.

Flagging interest.

Miranda’s work is arguably best understood in that cultural context, embracing the optimism associated with the Obama era. Hamilton offered a bold reimaging of the birth of the United States, finding room for the voices that had been excluded from the real events. Of course, there were always valid criticisms that the musical’s boundless enthusiasm was unearned, that while it foregrounded the musical style of and performers from a diverse array of backgrounds, it also erased the real lived experiences of those communities during the era depicted.

It is, of course, one of the great ironies that Hamilton has come and gone in the time that it took In the Heights to make it to screen. It feels like an entire cycle of discussion and debate around Miranda’s work and its place in these shifting times has taken place. Despite its origin as the show that established Miranda as a talent to watch, In the Heights arrives at a point where the artist’s work has been thoroughly dissected and explored. In the Heights feels late to its own party, in more ways than one.

Making a splash.

In the Heights had a very storied path to the big screen. Early plans for a cinematic adaptation were scuppered when studios like Universal and the Weinstein Company insisted on trying to cast recognisable pop stars like Shakira or Jennifer Lopez in the lead roles. The film was finally shot in 2019, but its release was delayed by the global pandemic. Ironically, this allowed Hamilton to leapfrog In the Heights to the screen. Disney had originally planned to release Hamilton as an awards season play in October 2021, but brought it forward for streaming as In the Heights was pushed back.

In the Heights took so long to make it to the big screen that its two dynamic young Broadway leads, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson, find themselves recast in cameos as duelling middle-aged frozen food vendors. It’s an interesting illustration of how far In the Heights has come and how long it took for the musical to make that journey. “The bodega was only supposed to be temporary, but now I’m almost thirty,” Usnavi sings at one point, and it’s sobering to think that the musical itself isn’t that much younger than him.

Northwest Side Story.

To its credit, In the Heights is a vibrant cinematic musical. It’s an infectious burst of colour and energy that is incredibly hard to resist. Director Jon M. Chu cut his teeth on the Step Up sequels and his work includes the Justin Bieber film Never Say Never. As a result, Chu knows how to stage big dance numbers for the screen. He avoids unnecessary cutting, allowing his camera to take in the choreography and inviting the audience to appreciate the care and the craft with which these set pieces have been put together.

In the Heights also benefits from an incredibly charming cast. Resisting the urge to cast recognisable movie stars, Chu draws heavily from Broadway veterans. Olga Merediz reprises her role as “Abuela” from the stage. Daphne Rubin-Vega is a stage veteran. Even the recognisable screen performers in the ensemble, like Corey Hawkins and Jimmy Smits, have proven their theatrical bona fides. It’s a very smart casting decision that plays out to the movie’s benefit. There is never a sense that In the Heights is ashamed of itself as a flamboyant musical.

A new release window model.

The film features a star-making performance from veteran Broadway actor Anthony Ramos. Ramos has already accrued an impressive filmography, including small but memorable roles in A Star is Born and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but In the Heights allows Ramos to showcase his strengths. Ramos makes Usnavi charismatic and compelling, and is deftly able to balance the competing demands of the script in terms of the character’s emotional arc and the more mechanical demands of headlining a spectacle on this scale.

In the Heights is an exercise in maximalism. The film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime feels indulgent and excessive, even cut down from the play’s original runtime. However, that indulgence and excess is almost the point. In the Heights pops off the screen in a way that boldly declares “movies are back!” with the triumphant return of one of Hollywood’s most flamboyant and dynamic genres. In the Heights is a summer movie through and through, and feels so committed to that energy that it is trying desperately to make up for last year’s lost summer to boot.

A familiar dance.

However, there is some small irony in the fact that In the Heights finally makes it to cinema screens in the same year as Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of West Side Story, placing the show firmly in the context of the more traditional musicals to which it was originally responding. As with the streaming release of Hamilton last year, In the Heights feels like an artifact of a time long past. What was once fresh and exciting now seems curiously traditional and even out of touch.

In the Heights repeatedly raises the threat of gentrification, the fear that this community of first- and second-generation immigrants might end up squeezed out of their homes by rising property prices. This is a very real and very credible threat, with very real stakes. After all, the central conflict for both Usnavi and Vanessa is the possibility that they might leave the neighbourhood; that Usnavi might return to the Domican Republic and that Vanessa might have to move out to the West Side.

Time comes for us all.

However, the musical’s response to this existential threat is not anger or despair. Instead, Usnavi offers a strange naivety that focuses on the little dreams – the “sueñitos” – of those living in the neighbourhood. At its core, In the Heights is a musical about a marginalised community finding victory in “the little details that tell the world we are not invisible” or the value in asserting their “dignity in small ways.” In this world, all one has to do to preserve an entire neighbourhood is to “say it so it doesn’t disappear.”

This is at best hopelessly optimistic and at worst cynically naive. In the Heights premiered on Broadway while Barack Obama was still campaigning for the Oval Office. In the years since, America voted in a President who described immigrants as “criminals, drug dealers, rapists” and “animals.” Deportation arrests soared. Hate crimes became increasingly common. All of this challenged the narratives of the Obama era, which was built on the romantic belief that the United States was on a long and progressive towards improvement.

Chu certainly brings his flare to the film.

Of course, it’s not necessarily fair to blame In the Heights for the fact that so much of its worldview seems trite and simplistic. After all, this part of the appeal of stage musicals, the fantasy that the world can be made right through the power of imagination, by chanting or singing phrases like, “We are not powerless, we are powerful.” At the same time, the film adaptation does little to fight its own slip away from relevance. It makes no real effort to engage with the changed reality of the world outside itself. More than that, many of the changes the movie makes to the film make it less relevant to the modern world.

In the Heights makes superficial gestures towards the world in which it finds itself. Taking its cues from more recent stagings, the film changes a lyric in the song 96,000 to delete a reference to playing golf with Donald Trump. The lyric replaces Donald Trump with Tiger Woods, a reference that has itself dated awkwardly in the year that the film was on the shelf. However, this speaks to the difficulties facing In the Heights and the clumsiness with which the movie rises to meet that challenge. In the Heights believes that simply swapping out a name is enough.

Making a counter-argument.

Similarly, In the Heights inserts a subplot concerning the character of Sonny. Sonny is a young undocumented immigrant who finds himself drawn to political protests to draw attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants. This feels like a concession to modernity. However, it is half-hearted and clumsy. At the rally, Sonny finds himself emotionally rattled by the prospect that he can never get a driver’s license or attend college as an undocumented immigrant. While these are valid concerns, they somewhat obscure the more fundamental existential terror that he could be deported from his home at any moment.

In the Heights is so committed to sunshine and optimism that it shies away from any plot points that might make the audience feel uncomfortable. Nina is a young woman who has left the community to attend Stanford. Her father Kevin is phenomenally (and deservedly) proud of her accomplishment. In one of the movie’s more touching moments, Kevin tells Nina, “This is the part where you do better than me. Not because of some fancy degree, but because you can see a future that I can’t.” It’s all very affirming.

Dipping into the discourse.

Nina’s arc largely hinges on her decision to drop out of Stanford because of the racism that she experienced there – being treated like a member of the serving staff or being subject to searches when her roommate loses something expensive. In the world of In the Heights, racism and prejudice are things that exist “out there”, beyond the idyllic fantasy of the neighbourhood. They are abstract ideas that don’t exist within the world of the movie. It’s a way of putting something uncomfortable at a cosy remove from the audience.

This feels like a very cynical calculation on the part of the movie, largely because it involves the most significant change to the flow and rhythm of the musical. The movie’s second lead is a young black man named Benny, who works for Kevin and is dating Nina. However, despite casting Corey Hawkins, In the Heights really has nothing for Benny to do. This is because his primary plot line from the stage show has been completely excised. In the original stage musical, Kevin was at odds with Benny; he did not want the young black man dating his daughter and could never see him running his company.

Bridging worlds.

In the Heights drops this subplot entirely, while making a point to include an entire subplot about dueling frozen food vendors that culminates in a post-credits sting. This is an uncomfortable choice on a number of levels. Most obviously, it robs actors Jimmy Smits and Corey Hawkins of the chance to play something meaty and substantive. More fundamentally than that, the choice seems to have been made to sand down the rougher edges of a musical that was once radical and even provocative.

The result of all of this is to push In the Heights out of step with reality and into some sort of strange fantasy space, more Sesame Street than New York, New York. As the debate about the film’s erasure of darker-skinned inhabitants of the neighbourhood demonstrates, there’s an argument to be made about whether In the Heights ever truly represented the neighbourhood. However, there’s a strong sense that the decades since the musical’s earliest drafts have seen it move further and further out of step with reality.

Busby bodies.

After all, In the Heights arrived on Broadway the same year as the Great Recession. This financial crisis would have several knock-on effects, but it would accelerate the gentrification of Washington Heights. This process kicked into high gear around 2012. By 2018, the neighbourhood was “a hipster haven.” Many of the neighbourhood’s older residents found themselves priced out, forced to move. As a result, the musical’s optimism feels hopelessly naïve, its triumphantism unearned.

In its own way, twenty years removed from its original release, In the Heights feels as much a throwback as any remake of West Side Story. The film revels in its Busby-Berkeley-inflected pool numbers and its characters caught between the mundane world in which they live and the fantastical world which they imagine, but what was once a radical new beat now feels like a familiar tune. In the Heights is still catchy, though – just not as striking.

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