In the Heights
Jon M. Chu’s cinematic rendering of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakout stage musical In the Heights is a brilliant, joyful triumph. As a music director of theatre productions (including this one), my gut instinct is to be territorial about film adaptations. The mediums of stage and screen couldn’t be more contrasting in their respective strengths and weaknesses in telling stories and selling specific moments; a good stage production does not necessarily a good film version make (and vice versa). Not only is Chu’s reimagining as staunchly vibrant and uplifting as its source material, but I would argue he has created an even more compelling narrative by virtue of his unabashed visual flair and willingness to allow and trust the music and dance to operate as central characters, as integral to the story as any of the leads. In the Heights is a really remarkable achievement.
Miranda and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes use the small lives and dreams of their protagonists in Washington Heights to tell a much larger story about purpose and finding your place in the world. Usnavi (played by an exceptionally likeable and charismatic Anthony Ramos) wants to buy his late father’s business in the Domincan Republic. Vanessa (Melissa Berrera) wants to be a fashion designer downtown. Nina (Leslie Grace) wants to drop out of college without disappointing her father. Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants to prove to Nina’s father that he’s worthy of his daughter. Hudes has cleverly restructured the narrative so that it is told in flashback; the film’s central Usnavi is re-telling the tale to a group of inquisitive children on a beach in the Dominican Republic. It’s a clever device that grounds the film with a sense of purpose and optimism; it shifts the focus from whether Usnavi, Vanessa, Nina and Benny will achieve their dreams to how they overcome the challenges that stand in their way. The journey is always more important than the outcome, so much so that when the final resolutions come along, what ran the risk of being nauseatingly saccharine feels truly earned. The film achieves a tidy balance of straddling the line between corny and self-seriousness, never fully toppling into either camp. It’s also worth mentioning Chu and choreographer Christopher Scott’s ingenious interpretation of ‘Paciencia Y Fe,’ the song and sequence belonging to the block’s matriarch Abuela (Olga Merediz), repositioning it as an emotional precursor to ‘Alabanza’ with stunning effect. Prepare thy tissues.
The musical elements of the musical (same word used twice intentionally, as sometimes musicals seem to forget they are musicals) have been fully integrated into the film as seamlessly as any other example that I can remember. There’s a naturalistic and conversational approach to the singing that I really dig. The songs feel less performative and more sincerely concerned with pausing that moment in time and allowing the characters to unpack it. This more organic and spontaneous style of singing in the recording studio obviously created some accuracy headaches when it came time to lip-synch, as there are some pretty clunky mismatches, but generally the cast handle it well. The voices themselves are all uniformly strong and contain the right amount of music theatre sensibility and stylistic authenticity without sounding needlessly brassy and clean. There is one jarringly obvious use of autotune in the a cappella opening of ‘When the Sun Goes Down,’ but I convinced myself it was an intentional artistic choice (otherwise it’s seriously bad…). Any misgivings I had at the beginning of that number, however, were allayed as soon as it went full Inception. The sheer depth of imagination in that sequence is exciting to watch and showcases a sure-handed director who challenges you to argue why it’s out of place.
I was not surprised to see Christopher Scott’s name listed as choreographer. The dancing is absolutely elite. Scott and his team of stylistically diverse assistant choreographers have created a fully inhabited world of movement that feels inextricably linked to the personas of Washington Heights. Every decision, from a subtle muscle twitch to full-blown aerial flip, is informed by the music. My absolute favourite example is how the suddenly whispered section in ’96,000’ is navigated and justified on screen – I nearly cheered. The dancing manages to highlight a truly insane amount of detail in the score, making for some exceptionally thrilling sequences, as well as countless forgettable, everyday movements like walking or placing something on a counter that get brilliantly elevated. A film that gives the dancers second billing after the main cast in the credits understands the importance of dance in a musical.
My primary issue with the film (albeit a fleeting one) is its pacing. In the transition from stage to screen, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that some narrative elements will be added, trimmed, fleshed out or cut altogether. I wasn’t entirely convinced that they nailed every revision here. There are some moments in the original where a few lines of dialogue occur over a fermata or vamp in the music before the song itself continues. In a couple of examples here (‘It Won’t Be Long Now’ stands out the most in my memory), instead of a handful of lines, seemingly an entirely new scene is inserted instead, to the extent that the song eventually recommences, and you’d forgotten that the song hadn’t finished yet. It would have seemed more logical to me, therefore, to remove the character of Piragüero, who seemed only to exist in the stage musical as some light, comic relief and more functionally to distract the audience during a more complex set change. However, then we would have been without a Lin-Manuel Miranda cameo; it’s a matter of personal taste whether or not that would have been an improvement. These two isolated examples will arguably only register with people who know the musical well, but at a runtime of nearly 2.5 hours, we’re not exactly begging for extra screen time.
It’s been a long time (mostly due to the movie genres I normally watch) since I’ve had such a genuinely moving experience watching a film. Chu has crafted an endearing and beautiful piece of cinema that should ideally be viewed on the biggest screen and loudest sound system you can find. In the Heights is arguably Miranda’s best work (Hamil-fans, talk to the hand, not interested) if for no other reason than the universality of its themes and the sheer unbridled joy that accompanies every note. In a world where it currently seems not only easy but compulsory to find fault with everyone’s motives, it’s refreshing to witness something where the easiest thing to find is the heart.
In the Heights is in cinemas now.