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Musicals will always take a while to hit the big screen. Unlike ideas bought by companies, or the rights to novels or TV shows, musicals practically don’t need cinema treatment. Hit shows end up making millions (some even billions) through a decade’s worth of global performances. The story is already there, on stage, for people to enjoy in the way the creators intended. So if there is no major financial gain with a big screen treatment, why is it still done?
Two reasons: film studios are typically bankrupt of new ideas and resort to other intellectual property. It’s a safe and easy bet that the thousands or more who loved the original show will come out to see famous actors tackle the material in a higher-budget production. This idea has been hit and miss. Movie musicals have a long history, but I’m talking about the adaptation of the “mega-musical”, created by shows like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. These adaptations will come so long after the show has finished its run that the idea of a “safe and easy bet” is rather foolish. No one, except for ironic midnight-movie fanatics, actually liked Cats and far few saw it.
The second reason, and the one that fits with In the Heights now being on the big screen, is that it is a great opportunity to expose a much-wider audience to a truly groundbreaking and acclaimed show that they definitely missed in the original run. Broadway and the West End have been dominated by wealthier audiences willing to shell out thousands for even the most average seat in a theatre. I personally hope that the Hamilton movie on Disney+ is all we get of that musical because it’s all an audience needs: the original cast performing at the height of the musical’s popularity in front of the best crowds. I am anticipating a future adaptation of musicals like Orpheus and Eurydice or Hadestown based on how acclaimed they are, because they will surely never come to Australia, let alone Perth.
For this reason, I am so happy that not only do we have an In the Heights movie, 14 years after it opened off-Broadway, but that it’s as great as it is. The only chance someone like me would ever get to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first acclaimed musical performed would be by flying out to Sydney or Melbourne, or waiting until WAAPA students do it as their next musical, and in either case you can guarantee that there will be few or even no Latinx cast members. Those are the requirements of the story and ignoring them is wrong.
If you didn’t know, In the Heights is a story set in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of New York City, which is mostly made up of Latinx communities from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba and other Hispanic countries. The story follows four main characters: Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). Each of these characters has a dream or a passion they want to follow all the way, even though each one creates significant anxiety, resulting in emotional conflicts with each other, all while a massive blackout creeps closer during the boiling summer in this culturally-rich borough of New York City.
In Jon M. Chu’s film, the majority of the speaking cast is made up of actors from various Latinx communities and we as the audience are all the better for it. Even if you don’t understand every colloquial Spanish term or phrase, or even all the lyrics to every song, it doesn’t really matter. You feel completely transported to a unique and culturally-dense world so much that all you want to do is leap into the screen and join the immense fun.
The height (ha) of this overwhelming scale of energy on display for the musical numbers is found with the incendiary number “96,000”. Two days of shooting and 500 extras in the Washington Heights public swimming pool results in a musical number so visually and audibly stunning, I would dare a packed audience not to feel involved and start humming along or dancing in the aisles. Even the background extras are getting into everything, making every frame feel meticulously crafted by an exceptional team of creatives.
I simply loved this film, in a way I did not expect. I am a fan of Hamilton, having listened to the soundtrack over and over before revelling in the excellent stage film on Disney+ last year, but I had no knowledge about In the Heights. I was aware of its success, winning several Tony Awards, and so I had all the faith in a musical film based on something from Miranda’s mind, and the result is truly incredible.
Jon M. Chu was the perfect choice as director, having not only started with Step Up 2 The Streets and Step Up 3-D which honed his skill of directing intricate choreography, but has worked with the Hollywood studio system (G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Now You See Me 2) and gave it a massive hit of ground-shaking diversity with Crazy Rich Asians. You have a director who knows how to film massive dance numbers, who knows how Hollywood works, and is committed to improve cinematic diversity, so In the Heights feels like a no-brainer. Chu’s visual style is unparalleled, executed with incredible results by cinematographer Alice Brooks and her camera crew, Myron Kerstein’s editing is stunning (with one cut during “Paciencia y Fe” being the most visually-stunning moment of the whole film), and the sound mixing is completely perfect. The numbers we hear are an impeccable mix of pre-recorded audio, on-set singing, and post-production re-records and it never has one moment of obvious switching. The craft of In the Heights is truly insane, and if you don’t feel wonder at Nina and Benny’s final number on a shifting apartment block wall, then something is lost inside you.
Anthony Ramos and Corey Hawkins had already made names for themselves by being in Hamilton and Straight Outta Compton (respectively), but have made such an incredible leap forward by showing their considerable talents as lead performers that it’s criminal NOT to give them these kinds of shots in the future. Ramos and Hawkins were already familiar to this reviewer, where as Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace were not and they pull off two incredible breakthrough performances. Both are so commanding of each of their scenes that their absence in cinema beforehand is criminal. Barrera’s emotional range is staggering, and Grace’s strength and power is overwhelming, with all four main performances being true works of musical art.
Along the way are some stellar supporting turns from Broadway legends, acting favourites, and some mesmerising young talent. Musical fans will note that salon owner Daniela is played by Daphne Rubin-Vega who originated the role of Mimi in Rent, and she kicks the door wide open any chance she can and makes her presence KNOWN. The legendary Jimmy Smits appears as Nina’s doting father Kevin Rosario and pulls off musical skills I never knew he had but are incredibly thankful for, and Gregory Diaz IV as ambitious teen Sonny is a star in the making. Pay attention to this kid and give him the work he deserves.
But there is one whole number that comes across and damn near steals the film away, gripping you tight and wrenching your heart like you never thought possible. Abuela Claudia, played by Olga Merediz who originated the role on Broadway, has a solo with “Paciencia y Fe” that will stop you in your tracks and single-handedly make you realise the power of the immigrant’s story. Merediz’ performance and the character’s writing will surely reach out to anyone with fond memories of their Abuela or even anyone who shared a loving relationship with a grandparent, and hopefully will make you understand the strength of their journey. It’s magnificent.
There are also several changes by the musical’s writer and this film’s screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes for a cinematic treatment. Benny is much more supportive and respectful of Nina, there’s fresh references to the “Dreamers” who came from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and new plot points around racial microaggressions, as well as a few minor characters and their beats shortened or cut out. This all makes sense, even though Benny and Nina’s characters feel unresolved by the final moments. The last minute or so is a massive emotional resolution for Usnavi and Vanessa, but Nina and Benny are completely absent, which leaves one feeling unsatisfied. The runtime is also noticeable, but if Marvel films can entertain at 140 minutes, so can a musical movie.
There is also an ongoing conversation and criticism around the lack of Afro-Latinx representation in the film. Although Leslie Grace is Afro-Latina, most of the film’s main characters are lighter-skinned Latinx people which has generated conversations around colorism, as well as an apology from Lin-Manuel Miranda for the film’s lack of representation for this group. I cannot speak much on this. I would not dare. The conversation is necessary and the filmmakers should have understood such ideas. Hopefully, we can hear the criticism, learn from it in the future, and still celebrate the representation in the film anyway.
In the Heights should be as much of a cultural game-changer in Hollywood as Crazy Rich Asians. I want to see all four actors become the kinds of in-demand stars like Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Awkwafina are. I want to have new Latinx-led projects be built on the success of this film, and we must also do better to represent Afro-Latinx people. In the Heights is a truly remarkable achievement in most regards, a musical movie filled with envious earworms, a bright and colourful explosion of expression, a testament to the power of dreams, and something made with infinite love. This is one of the very best of 2021 and you need to see In the Heights as soon as you can.
Director: Jon M. Chu
Writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins
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