I wouldn’t want to be Steven Spielberg right now.
The Hollywood hitmaker has got West Side Story set for a December release, and it’s his diverse-young-people-dancing-in-the-New-York-streets adapted-from-Broadway musical film for 2021. But it’s likely to be compared to another diverse-young-people-dancing-in-the-New York-streets adapted-from-Broadway musical film that happens to be one of the best stage-to-screen musical adaptations in, well, ever.
That’s In the Heights.
One of my pandemic lockdown goals was to watch all of the Broadway-to-film musical adaptations that I somehow missed in my moviegoing lifetime. I’ll save the details for another column, but suffice for now to say that, after I’ve added about 15 more such flicks to the dozens I’d previously seen, I now understand why there are a lot of people who simply don’t like musicals. Most of them aren’t very good.
It’s a brutally difficult form to make work. And it’s easy to overpraise ones that simply manage to just not screw up.
Far from just not screwing up, In the Heights creates joyful, cinematic magic out of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s source material.
Miranda’s 2008 Broadway musical picked up a Tony Award for Best Musical in a not-particularly-strong theatrical year. In the Heights was a little-engine-that-could show, without recognizable stars or a high-concept plot. Running for three years, it might still have become a musical-theater footnote if not for the mind-of-Miranda blockbuster Hamilton. Hungry fans looked back, and In the Heights rose higher on the cultural radar.
A contemporary story such as In the Heights wouldn’t seem to require much cinematic rethinking. But, as I’ve learned from my pandemic musical viewing, creative and thoughtful adaptation is essential.
From the opening moments of the film, it’s clear that director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes know that a musical film benefits from creating its own universe and its own rationale for singing and dancing. The landmark film Chicago, for instance, pulled it off by making the musical numbers fantasies built around its characters’ obsessions with showbiz success. Cabaret did it by only keeping the songs that would be publicly sung, sans fantasy.
The singing and dancing of In the Heights feels right because it’s couched in storytelling. The film opens with Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) telling a group of children about a transitional time in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York. By framing the primary action this way, music and dance becomes as natural as speech. The storytelling frame also circumnavigates any complaints that what we see is romanticized and not realistic. Nobody smokes, litter is absent, the greatest vice is a bottle of champagne, and the worst crime we see is a bit of shoplifting. And that’s OK. Would you add sordid details if you were telling the story to children?
In the thrilling “here’s the neighborhood” title opening number — and in remarkably casual-yet-info-packed scenes and numbers that follow — we learn that Usnavi, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, runs the neighborhood bodega but yearns to return to his roots.
We meet Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a salon worker anxious to move downtown and start a fashion career on whom Usnavi harbors a crush. There’s Nina (Leslie Grace) who “got out” and went to Stanford only to return with a secret and shame. Warning: Her song, “Breathe,” is a have-tissues-handy knockout. Rounding out the main characters is Benny (Corey Hawkins), a cab dispatcher with deep feelings for Nina.
And there Claudia, aka Abuela (Olga Merediz, from the Broadway production), a childless woman who has taken on the role of everyone’s grandmother. If you don’t leave In the Heights wishing you had this Abuela in your life, check your pulse.
That’s the core, but there’s much more. And a great part of the pleasure comes from the reactions, throwaway lines, gestures and all-around alive-ness of those beyond the leads.
What the film doesn’t have is a villain or even an antagonist. Replacing it are conflicting needs and desires, the inevitability of neighborhood transformation and the economic challenges of the working class.
As on stage, the second half of In the Heights feels a bit padded. It could have done without some forced jealousy conflict at a dance club and might have benefited from rethinking an over-gimmicky Inception meets TV’s Batman dance on the side of a building. But elsewhere, fanciful moments help the movie transcend. When Vanessa’s creative passion is brought to life by giant swaths of fabric rippling and falling from apartment buildings and when a fence becomes an animated subway map — to name two of many — In the Heights reaches glorious heights.
On top of what’s on the screen, the release timing feels just right.
After over a year of the pause that didn’t refresh, I believe a joyous film about neighbors and neighborhood, one with a rich salad of ethnicities tapping universal experience is going to resonate strongly.
It did with me.
And I’m ready to watch it again.