I wouldn’t mind more live-action musicals like this one hitting theaters at a more consistent rate, so get on it Hollywood!
Set in the New York City area of Washington Heights, In The Heights is a movie all about community and family. Exploring what both mean as a whole, why the idea of each are immensely important to the people in the area, and what it takes for the residents of Washington Heights to reach for their dreams and beyond, this story is a simple one that mostly takes place in the lead up to a city-wide blackout during a heat wave that’s hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk in seconds. Following a local bodega owner, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who’s personal aspirations transcend the little area he grew up in as he attempts to make more for himself and for those around him, Usnavi is flanked by friends, family, and a love interest, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who also has her own goals in mind outside of the heights. Faced with a life changing decision that he isn’t even sure he wants anymore, Usnavi is pulled into a fantastically directed and produced musical about the power of community and family and what it means for those that might want to take a step off the beaten path to find a destiny that is wholly their own.
Directed by the stellar John M. Chu of Crazy Rich Asians fame (go watch that one now if you haven’t already), In The Heights is a competent and enjoyable musical in more ways than one. With show stopping numbers directed in some truly inventive ways, to smaller songs that fit within the context of the script’s character work, to toe-tapping beats and melodies that will have you humming along throughout, this film is a prime example of how to not only make a Broadway show adaptation right, but how to simply make a great musical overall.
Populated by actors of mostly diverse backgrounds (more on the “mostly” part later), this film is a snapshot of an area that lives and dies by the community it has fostered over the years. Focused more so on the Spanish speaking residents of the area, the script does a great job instilling the feeling of family and friendship in ways that also draw attention to what it means to be a minority and immigrant in a country that isn’t always welcoming to people such as this.
Couple that with some character work that’s surprisingly doled out to more than just the handful of main characters, and you have a movie that might run a tad too long for my tastes, but one that successfully gets what the filmmakers are trying to accomplish across in the most entertaining way possible. Swinging from big choreographed dances to smaller more intimate moments, In The Heights hits heights that I didn’t expect, even if some of the lows can’t be ignored.
Speaking of, I’d be remiss not to mention the colorism present in this film, a fact that has not only dogged this movie from the start, but is an entirely valid criticism of the filmmakers all around. Now don’t get me wrong, Lin-Manuel Miranda has come out and apologized for the lack of darker skinned characters and proper representation of the Afro-Latinx community (which make up a decent portion of the population where this movie takes place), but it can’t be denied that this oversight stings more than a little, especially for a movie that’s all about celebrating the diversity of Washington Heights to begin with. I won’t say that I have intimate knowledge of the Washington Heights area as I’ve only personally been once or twice (and not for long), but I do have friends and acquaintances that should have seen themselves represented onscreen and instead get maybe one or two background dancers with the filmmakers calling it a day way sooner than necessary. If anything, this kind of thing hurts the film in ways that stop it from being an even better watch than it already is, and let’s be honest here, if a pale white dude like me noticed the lack of inclusion while watching, then it’s probably a bigger issue than they’re making it out to be.
So as it stands, In The Heights is actually a damn good musical, and despite it running way too long for its own good, the fact that the colorism present — whether done on purpose or out of some kind of accidental ignorance — is even something we have to talk about in this day and age, is a fact that needs to be addressed outright in movies like this and within the greater business of Hollywood in general. Including more people that quite literally live and thrive in the area should have been a no brainer, and while I appreciate the effort all around, the filmmakers most definitely shoot themselves in the foot more often than not, but are luckily able to skate by on the strength of everything else surrounding their few missteps. Good thing Lin-Manuel Miranda and John M. Chu know how to craft a show stopping song and a dance number, or else this one would have been in a much worse place overall.