In The Heights is the latest film from Warner Bros, based on the lesser-known Broadway musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton. The film certainly feels like it’s come at the right time; Hamilton fever is certainly still around in spite of the fact that no one’s been able to go and see the thing for over 15 months.
In The Heights certainly feels like a passion project from Lin-Manuel Miranda, playing very heavily into his heritage that he’s very proud of, his parents being from Puerto Rico. And that influence is definitely more on display in this project than it was in Hamilton though both definitely draw from that, tapping into the fact that Alexander Hamilton was born in the Caribbean and therefore was the only Founding Father that could not become President. In The Heights definitely feels like it was made as part of negotiations to get a Hamilton movie made, though I think Disney would have to make that now considering they do have the rights to the broadcast of the special film version of the stage show on Disney Plus, leaving many to question if that will even be happening. In The Heights also comes off the fact it’s the first time a Broadway musical has been turned into a live-action film for a big-budget studio since Cats in 2019 which was the biggest flop of its year, barely making back a tenth of its budget. It was such a flop that it was considered to possibly be the death nail for the movie adaptation of Broadway musicals, to such an extent, I believe, that if Hamilton had not been as big a success as it was, I don’t think Warner Bros would have even remotely taken a chance on it.
Now, I would like to talk about the plot of In The Heights but I don’t feel I really should talk too much about it, for many reasons: not just because I don’t want to spoil the film but also because In The Heights is very much clear it was a Broadway show and not written to be a film. In The Heights does not have a very typical 3-act structure, and in many ways it wasn’t changed when translated to film. In fact, if you divide it into 3 acts then the first act does not actually have too much set-up per se; they kind of just go from moment to moment. The film doesn’t really follow a traditional structure until an inciting incident about halfway through where the Washington Heights district of New York has a blackout, something that the film counts down to leading up to it and counts away from after the fact. There are really two or three plots going on, the third one you could count as the daily lives of the various residents of Washington Heights and the fact the block is kind of disappearing with people being priced out of their businesses and homes. There’s a very tight-knit community of Latin-Caribbean immigrants and their families—as well as the children of said immigrants who have been born and raised in this district—being forced out. This is brought up in particular way in regards to the fact the dreamers might be getting kicked out, something that is still very politically charged in spite of the fact that Donald Trump is no longer President. In fact, there’s a lot of emphasis on that aspect of the storyline in the trailers, but I was surprised to find it doesn’t really play much of a factor until the final act.
The main plot centres around the sort-of main character Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos, and his goal to gain the funds and reset up his father’s bar in the Dominican Republic and eventually move back there, trying to convince the block’s matriarch as well as his cousin Sunny to move back with him. There’s also a plot around Nina, played by Leslie Grace, who feels the pressure of the block putting a lot of their hopes in her, despite wanting to drop out of college to not only stop her father sinking every penny he has into her education but also for her own personal reasons which get revealed later on in the film, as well as a burgeoning romance with childhood friend Benny, played by Corey Hawkins (who you might recognise as Dr. Dre from Straight Outta Compton). Nina’s subplot is definitely one of the most interesting ones, even if I thought it ended on a rather anti-climactic note. And I did like Usnavi’s plotline; he’s one of the most likeable characters in the film. But again, I do have to stress: this is very much a Broadway show brought to a film. And Broadway plays, particularly musicals, often do not fit the 3-act structure, particularly considering they are often longer than films and allow for intermission, something that was very much felt with In The Heights, being a 2-hour and 23-minute movie. Having not seen the play and not being aware of how it’s structured, I cannot say if any of this was cut for time in a similar way to how the Les Misérables adaptation that Tom Hooper directed had about 30 minutes of plotline cut but was of a similar length to In The Heights.
If there’s one thing this film has over a lot of recent movie musicals it’s that the songs in the set pieces translated very well to the film world. For one thing, they could actually film in New York which benefitted them greatly in many ways. Don’t expect to see too many landmarks though; the only one that shows up a lot is the Brooklyn Bridge. They also, for example, can shoot the entire song that takes place at a swimming pool actually in a swimming pool—and, by the way, that song is one of the best ones in the entire film. It’s also very clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda really knows how to translate these songs to film, better than, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber did with both his Phantom of The Opera and Cats adaptations, and I bring that comparison up very deliberately because both creators were very heavily involved in the film versions.
Lin-Manuel Miranda even has a small part in the film, though he only has one short song to himself; he does not put himself front and centre like he does in Hamilton. But it’s also very clear that he’s been heavily involved in the production and as a result has been able to put his vision to the screen and actually understands how these songs and set pieces are going to look on film, so doesn’t make a lot of the mistakes that recent movie musicals do. In fact, in many senses, from a visual perspective, some of the really out-there moments kind of reminded me of Moulin Rouge—though the films visually are incredibly different, they both go completely out there and do not try to ground themselves too heavily in realism, something that the Oscar-chasing movie musicals have done to their detriment. If you want a better explanation of how that has happened, I suggest watching Lindsey Ellis’s videos on the subject, particularly her videos on Phantom of The Opera and Cats.
The other problem a film musical like this has is where they have to chose whether the song’s going to be diegetic or non-diegetic (i.e. Are the songs actually happening within the world and narrative of the story or are they, say, in the characters’ imaginations? An example of the latter would be Chicago.) In The Heights kind of seems to try both, some songs being diegetic and some being non-diegetic, and they also kind of break the fourth-wall considering that some of the songs go back to the framing device of Usnavi telling a bunch of kids the story on a beach. The songs, however, are really good. There are a couple of duds in there that don’t fit so well but the title track is great, the pool scene searching for a missing lottery winner is great, and I actually thought the song about the life of one of the Cuban immigrants that lived in the area was incredibly powerful. And ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Know’ will be in my head for days after seeing this film, though probably for all the wrong reasons.
Now, the film’s been sold quite heavily on the fact that this film is also a hip-hop musical similar to Hamilton, however rather like Hamilton it doesn’t just go completely hip-hop; most of the rapping songs are done by Usnavi and Sunny. The other songs take quite a few influences, mostly from the music of Latin-Caribbean countries, though I did get a sense of a bit of a salsa influence as well since it also has to reflect the community which is made of up of several Latin-Caribbean cultures, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. If there’s anything that the film really exemplifies it’s the idea of community spirit. There’s one particular number that really nails the togetherness that people feel from this block, and that charm is really what made me enjoy the film. However, I’m wondering how much people will take to this movie considering that it is a bit of a slow film to transition from moment to moment and character arcs often feel kind of sped up at times; they don’t flow the way the would do in a traditional 3-act structure. Again, because this film does not have a traditional 3-act structure; it’s a very literal translation of a Broadway play. But as a whole, I think it comes together at the end to a satisfying final product.
The film’s directed by Jon M. Chu who—I’ll be honest—does not have the best filmography for his directorial credits, having directed G.I. Joe: Retaliation as well as Justin Bieber’s terrible documentary. But that being said, I really enjoyed one of his previous projects, Crazy Rich Asians. And it’s not his first time directing musicals, having directed the two Step Up sequels, but I think this film dwarfs those in terms of the fact he does an excellent job directing these scenes and really understands how to do a good musical sequence; I actually was really impressed by his direction in this one. And whoever the cinematography team was also did a great job knowing the right moment to go minimalistic with certain aspects of the scenery and then over-the-top at other times. The use of colour in this film is excellent also. Plus, they genuinely picked actors who could perform these songs; I didn’t get a sense that there’d been much auto tuning or fixing in the mixing booth, similar to what’s happened to some of the Disney live-action films.
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