- Warner Bros. Pictures
The contemporary movie musical faces twin perils that feel like a no-win paradox. On the one hand, there's the way that live theater somehow breaks down a natural cynical resistance to the notion of people bursting into song to tell their stories—an obstacle that proves more challenging in the extreme close-ups of cinema. On the other hand, there's the urge to remain faithful to source material, which often stands in the way of filmmakers employing the unique tools that only cinema can provide. So how do you make a movie musical that's first and foremost a movie, while avoiding the pitfalls of a genre that, at least in 2021, shouldn't work as a movie?
For his adaptation of In the Heights—the 2008 Broadway debut of future Hamilton multi-hyphenate Lin-Manuel Miranda—director Jon M. Chu makes almost every possible correct choice. He casts no movie stars, so that the idea of people with as-yet-unrealized dreams feels all the more potent. He embraces the specific energy that comes from working on location rather than on a theatrical stage. And most importantly, he directs In the Heights as an honest-to-God movie, using the language and (and trickery) of cinema to accentuate every thematic idea.
Set in the largely-Latino Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, the story follows several characters trying to realize their ambitions. Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) runs a bodega on the corner of his block, but longs to return to the Dominican Republic and purchase the seaside bar once owned by his late father. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whom Usnavi adores from afar, wants to leave her job at the local beauty salon and move downtown to become a fashion designer. And Nina (Leslie Grace) struggles with the opportunity afforded to her by attending Stanford, even as she misses home and knows that the college expenses are a burden on her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits).
Anyone familiar with Hamilton will already have a sense for how Miranda—who originated Usnavi on Broadway, and here plays a street shaved-ice vendor—can employ his rapid-fire, often spoken-word lyrics to bring a playfulness to potentially heavy material. The events here certainly aren't nearly as world-shaping as those in Hamilton, but In the Heights effectively captures the psychological push-and-pull involved with people who seem always to be either looking ahead to the next opportunity, or behind them to where they came from, without always appreciating the powerful community that's been created where they are. As much as Hamilton was touted as "an American musical" about the very foundations of our country, In the Heights could claim the same subtitle as it pokes around in a wide range of experiences that define being a first- or second-generation immigrant.
Yet what makes that story so vital here is the way Chu stages those experiences in ways that pop with creative imagination. Certainly there are sequences that feel similar to the way they would be presented on a theatrical stage, like the neighborhood party of "Carnaval del Barrio." For every such moment, however, there is a choice that really only can work in a movie. One terrific early shot positions choreography of dancers in the street as a reflection in a window, with Usnavi's head almost floating above the dancers in a way that emphasizes his fantastical musings. As Usnavi and some of his friends contemplate what they'd do with the winnings from a lottery ticket in "96,000," Chu turns their gestures into full-on animation accentuating what's on their minds. Most memorably, he turns a romantic scene between Nina and her once-and-maybe-future boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins) for "When the Sun Goes Down" into a gravity defying pas-de-deux up and down the side of their apartment building.
As raw source material, In the Heights perhaps isn't as powerful as Hamilton, with a slightly over-stuffed book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, and tunes that aren't as instantly ear-wormy. But this is still a tremendous showcase for the young cast, bringing an intensity of conviction to the story of this specific time and place. Better yet, as a story grounded firmly in its characters' sueñitos (little dreams), they feel bigger and more substantial because of the way Chu takes the heightened reality of theatrical musicals and gives it a little extra sparkle from the Hollywood Dream Factory.