“Immigrants – we get the job done,” ran a line in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash musical. In the Heights deals more overtly with the immigrant experience in America but no matter which way you look at it, this film doesn’t get the job done quite as well as Hamilton did, not in terms of plot or songs or raps. Why would it? This was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first go at creating a musical and though it won him a Tony – not bad for a debut – he’s still held back by the Broadway conventions that Hamilton rejected, and was all the better because it did.
Big opening number, and we’re introduced to all the gang in Washington Heights, New York. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a local bodega selling everything, his friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) is a wheel at the local cab firm. Usnavi has a big unrequited thing for wannabe designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Benny the same for boss’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who’s smart and just back from Stanford, where her first term has left her unsure about whether to continue. Around the edges of this largely youthful district are Nina’s kindly but patriarchal dad, Kevin (a game Jimmy Smits), and Usnavi’s “Abuela” (Olga Merediz), a warm, comforting, sagacious surrogate matriarch for anyone who needs one, as orphaned Usnavi does.
But in the main, the focus of the story is on these four, the will they/won’t they of their relationships – which never seems to matter very much to any of them – the pursuit of their dreams, and perhaps most of all their fealty to their ethnicity.
Usnavi’s dream is to leave the bodega and return to the Dominican Republic, which neatly exposes the three themes of the musical. Assimilate or not – Usnavi can stay and “be American” or return to a native homeland he in truth has little connection to. Gentrify or not – he could sell the bodega to one of the new incoming operations like the next-door laundry for hipsters. Stay real or not – the folk culture (good) v mass culture (bad) argument comes in a distinct third, but the only song actually sung by a cameoing Lin-Manuel Miranda himself concerns the struggle of the smalltime Piragüero (a seller of syrup-flavoured shaved ice) against the predatory blandishments of the altogether more manufactured Mr Softee ice cream.
Jon M Chu’s directed a couple of the Step Up films and is at his best earliest in the film, creating big, Latin-infused musical numbers that owe more to cinema than stage. The rap-inflected opener with all of Miranda’s verbal gymnastics are a match for Chu’s whooshing camera, clever effects and smart editing, which introduce individuals and the wider community and has the exhilaration of the musical number done well. The later, showstopping number at the local outdoor pool is also a marvel of flying camera and synchronised choreography.
At its heart though, unlike Hamilton, In the Heights is much more obviously in thrall to the perma-urgency of Broadway – the need to counterpoint every tune with another, the ascending key changes, the sustained notes aimed at the back of the room and the adenoidal singing. Couple all that with songs with often indifferent tunes and the smile does at times get a little forced.
Visually, like Hamilton, the film works best when it’s most like a stage musical. Chu works wonders early on, but some later numbers suffer from a surfeit of editing, and the habit of cutting away from dancers doing key moves is immensely irritating. Fred Astaire’s dictum still holds – if the dancers are worth seeing, pull the camera back and let’s see them.
It seems churlish to knock Miranda’s relentless positivity, and his celebration of the warmth of community and the joy of the extended family. Miranda himself seems to understand that he’s getting a bit propagandistic and eventually introduces a bit of grit – there are money worries and a romantic bump in the road, though at no point do these concerns really hit home. There’s even a death, but one of such dramatic lack of consequence you’ve got to wonder why he bothered.
They’re great performers, Ramos and Barrera and Hawkins and Grace, and they give it their all but their characters don’t have much heft. They’re the film in a nutshell – big, joyous, lively and optimistic, a style in search of a subject. For all its pluses, In the Heights is perhaps best appreciated as The Road to Hamilton.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021