“In the Heights” is a new musical directed by Jon M. Chu and is based on the play by Lin-Manuel Miranda & Quiara Alegría Hudes. It stars Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, and Corey Hawkins. The story follows a bunch of characters who live in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, but the main character & storyline is Usnavi (played by Ramos), who aspires to leave the neighborhood for the Dominican Republic.
It’s important to note that I’m not a fan of musicals. I get taken out of them once characters start singing and dancing out of nowhere. In order for musicals to really justify themselves they must have multiple fantastic songs and/or a story that is legitimately engaging. The only (live-action) musicals I actually like are “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Greatest Showman,” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” I enjoy the first two because of their abundance of memorable songs, and “The Wizard of Oz” in particular was simply a cinematic achievement. I consider “Singin’ in the Rain” to be the best musical though, as it makes sense why the characters, who are professional singers & actors in the story, break out into song. Maybe I’ll do a classic film review of it someday…
The overall plot of the film is quite cluttered. There are a lot of storylines going on simultaneously. Some characters want to leave the neighborhood because they have dreams of doing something else, and others are worried about family-related issues or expectations of them from others. I wouldn’t say the movie is a mess, but the reason it isn’t is because it has a 2 1/2 hour runtime. It’s really, really long, especially for such a generic story. Several storylines could have been cut to improve the film, giving it a stronger pace and a cleaner narrative. Sadly, I didn’t care about most of the characters.
The character that I liked the most was Nina (played by Leslie Grace), who struggles with the expectations put upon her by her father and others. Nina attends Stanford University, and the neighborhood, which is generally made up of people who didn’t go to college & are of lower economic status, sees her as a successful, important figure. However, she struggles to tell them that she hates Stanford and she misses the lifestyle of her former neighborhood. Nina is the most relatable character in many ways, and she also has a more realistic, non-generic storyline. Unfortunately, she is still a side character, and the story focuses on less interesting ones.
Something great about the film was the setting. Washington Heights felt lived-in and almost fantasy-like. The streets are described as being “made of music,” and you really feel that throughout the film. That’s a big compliment for director Jon M. Chu, who did a fantastic job. I’m sure directing this film was a daunting task due to its scale and the complexity of all the dance/musical sequences. From a visual standpoint, “In the Heights” is a near masterpiece.
As explained earlier, this film’s most important job as a musical was to provide catchy songs and exciting dance sequences. Did it accomplish that? Well…. no. Maybe some people will find the songs fun and would revisit them a lot, but I thought they were pretty lackluster. Like 2019’s “Cats,” this film has the problem where most of its songs are just people narrating what they think, what they’re doing, or simply what someone’s name is. Take some of Usnavi’s lyrics from the very first song:
“The milk has gone bad, hold up justa second. Why is everything in this fridge warm and tepid? I better step it up and fight the heat. ‘Cause I’m not makin’ any profit if the coffee isn’t light and sweet!”
“Next up, ding! Kevin Rosario. He runs the cab company, he struggles in the barrio. See, his daughter Nina’s off at college, tuition is mad steep. So he can’t sleep; everything he gets is mad cheap!”
See what I mean? Many of the songs are just lazy and underwritten, at least to me. One of the reasons why “Somewhere Under the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” is so great is that Dorothy isn’t simply singing about her thoughts directly. The lyrics are symbolic and the tune is beautiful. “In the Heights” lacks a song that even comes close to that.
“In the Heights” is a brilliantly directed film with striking visuals and a unique setting. Unfortunately, it suffers from having a generic, unoriginal story and doesn’t have enough memorable songs to justify itself being a musical. If you love musicals, I recommend you watch this film, but if you’re like me, you should skip it.
Grade for Musical Fans: B
Grade for Non-Fans: C-