I was pretty late in taking in the musical “Hamilton,” to the point where I didn’t take it in in any form aside from the stray song or line until the filmed version showed up on Disney+ last year. The reasons for this are pretty much the same reasons I don’t take in any Broadway musicals: I don’t live in New York, and even if I did I doubt that the theater is where I would choose to spend my money, and even if I was so inclined I definitely wouldn’t have gone through the motions of trying to get tickets to that blockbuster. I also had no interest whatsoever in listening to the Original Cast Recording without the visual component as that just goes against my general philosophy for taking in art, which is basically that if you’re not going to do it right just don’t do it. That said I was not so surprisingly impressed with the musical once it was finally made available to me through that streaming service. After all, it’s a major work of popular entertainment that combines American history with hip hop… that’s kind of something that’s tailored to appeal to my nerdy interests. The bigger question is why it proved so wildly compelling to millions upon millions of people who didn’t have a pre-existing interest in the finer points of the Federalist Papers, and I think the fairly obvious answer to that is that it just delivered some damn catchy tunes. It’s the kind of success that generates a surge in interest in its creator’s previous work (call it the “Angels & Demons” phenomenon) and as such expectations are raised quite a bit for In the Heights, the new film version of one of Lin Manuel Miranda’s earlier stage efforts, which has been brought to the screen by director Jon Chu.
“The Heights” of the title refers to the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, which since the 60s and 70s has become something of a hub of Latin American culture in the city. The film follows a handful of Washington Heights residents over the course of a few days but generally focuses on two parallel stories. The first is about a bodega owner named Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic when he was eight but has dreams of returning there to buy back his dead father’s business there and has been hatching a plan to do this now that it’s up for sale. He is, however, conflicted about this as it would leave behind his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), the woman he called “Abuela” (Olga Merediz) despite no being related by blood, and also Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), a woman currently planning to move downtown that he has a crush on. Meanwhile, a neighbor of his named Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) has returned from Stanford after having completed her first year there but is planning to drop out firstly because she feels alienated there and secondly because she doesn’t want her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) to be further burdened by tuition payments. She’s also dating Benny (Corey Hawkins), an employee of Kevin’s and a friend of Usnavi. Over the course of about a week all of these stories will converge in ways that will be life altering for all of them.
Obviously this musical has similar musical stylings as Hamilton but on a story level it perhaps more closely resembles the last Broadway show before that to really cross over to the general public at that level: Rent. Both shows center on the lives of young people in a vibrant New York neighborhood while trying to use their stories to look at the issues of their time. This can be both a strength and weakness; there’s a reason why Manuel’s show about a nationally important historical figure has managed to travel further than this show about this neighborhood in New York that 98% of the population would never have heard of were it not for this production. Unsurprisingly the musical is very pro-Washington Heights… like, really, really, really, really pro-Washington Heights. It’s not exactly specific about what makes the neighborhood uniquely superior to any other Latin American community in the country, but the localized patriotism is certainly palpable. Looked at from a certain angle there’s almost something oddly conservative about the film’s outlook in this regard: it’s completely resistant to any changes that the community may encounter and views the idea that someone would want to live as being something of a tragedy. Were it a small town in the Midwest this attitude were being expressed toward rather than an urban Latin American neighborhood it would be almost indistinguishable from one of those Hallmark movies about people discovering that everything they ever wanted was there in their home town all along.
Really though the price the film pays for all this boosterism has less to do with thematic questions and more to do with simple story structure and character motivation. Our main characters Usnavi, Vanessa, and to some extent Nina actually have leaving the neighborhood rather than arriving at it as their goals and the movie is… rather unconvincing in trying to sell this as their motivation what with the incredible awesomeness of Washington Heights being the central theme of nearly every scene of the film. They barely even bother to explain why moving downtown is Vanessa’s big goal (apparently it’s because she wants to be involved in fashion… but, like, commuting is a thing) and Usnavi’s desire to return to the Dominican Republic is simply mentioned in the opening song and in one conversation but it’s rarely re-iterated or elaborated on and certainly doesn’t drown out the film’s aggressive celebration of the neighborhood he’s supposedly excited to get out of. I don’t think the arcs on this subject really make a ton of sense, everyone just kind of has their outlook change on a dime at certain points and don’t even get me started on how out of nowhere and rushed the ending feels.
Part of the problem may just be that the film has a few too many characters. At its heart the film is supposed to be about the journeys of Usnavi and Nina but the film can’t help but also focus on a whole bunch of other side characters that don’t have a lot to do with anything. For instance we spend an inordinate amount of time with Nina’s hairdresser and her other employees. They have some effect on the plot, but should by all accounts be side characters but instead they have multiple musical numbers including one late in the film which drags a lot. But those characters seem very important compared to the time the film spends focusing on a snow cone salesman and his rivalry with an ice cream truck driver, which is shamelessly ripped off from a scene in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and seems to only exist to give a cameo to Lin-Manuel Miranda if not for the fact that this was also in the stage musical. The time spent with these characters kind of detracts from the amount of time the film was able to focus on other characters. Like, there’s a scene late in the movie between Nina and her boyfriend Benny where they’re fancifully dancing on the side of a building and it’s really beautiful but it doesn’t have nearly the impact it should because we’ve barely had any time to get to know Benny and this relationship hasn’t really been developed at all and it’s not really the catharsis that it should be. I suspect the intent here was to make a movie about a larger community rather than just individuals and if they were going to do that I almost wish they had gone all in on that idea and made a true ensemble film with no lead because as is it kind of fits awkward between being a story about a couple people and being a story about everyone.
Now, I’ve been focusing a lot on the negative so far, in part because I’m trying to work through why my response to this has been a bit muted compared to other people’s but I don’t at all want to give the impression that I didn’t like the movie at all or that people shouldn’t see it, because whatever shortcomings it has in terms of substance it probably makes up for a lot of it through sheer style and energy. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical style is meant to be a fusion between typical Broadway exuberance with modern “urban” music and in the case of this musical traditional Latin music. For the film Jon Chu seems to be trying to do a similar thing except with very old school film musicals of the Busby Berkeley variety. It’s not the kind of musical that tries to contextualize its songs through diegesis or to imply that the musical numbers are fantasies in someone’s head and instead goes all in on having people sing to each other and doesn’t hesitate to have sequences where dozens of extras join in to choreographed dances in the street when the main characters feel so inclined to sing to each other. The fusion of modern culture with old Hollywood is probably most palpable in a song midway through the film called “$96,000,” which is one of the most overtly hip-hop influenced songs in the film (right down to a blatant Boogie Down Productions interpolation) but is performed at an outdoor public pool as people line-dance around the place and culminates in a recreation of Kaleidoscopic synchronized swimming sequence from The Footlight Parade.
The film’s cast is also quite good though I would say that there’s a certain plateau many of them reach without going above and beyond. The film has opted not to cast big names in favor of people who have the musical chops. The biggest names here are probably Jimmy Smits (who has a non-singing role) and Corey Hawkins, and beyond that most of the actors here either come from Miranda’s Broadway work (Anthony Ramos/Olga Merediz) or some other musical background (like Leslie Grace, who is a recording star in the world of Latin music). The music itself in the film is… good. It gets the blend of styles down right and it seems to mostly be well performed, but… there’s a reason “Hamilton” is the musical that made Lin-Manuel Miranda famous nationwide and this isn’t because the music here is a bit of a step down from that. The music here works quite well while you’re listening to it but there isn’t really a standout track that will be stuck in your head when the movie’s over and it also lacks the dense wordplay that made “Hamilton” stand out. In fact “not as good as Hamilton” it true of a lot about the movie outside of, well, it’s a real movie. As of now “Hamilton” is still a stage play, albeit one that’s been officially filmed for streaming whereas this is a fully produced motion picture with some really slick visual ideas from Jon Chu. I have some issues with the some of the core storytelling and mixed messages and feel like it has some structural issues… but it remains something pretty unique compared to most of what we’re going to get from Hollywood this year and whatever quibbles I may have with it I still think it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.
***1/2 out of Five