In the Heights

When it comes to the film version of In the Heights, context might not be everything, but for many folks, it might be the biggest factor in experiencing it. The Broadway version opened in 2008, and it was to be made into a film a few years after. Then there were problems, and things were delayed. Then they finally made the film, and looked to a June 2020 release date. Then COVID pushed it to June 2021.

Since the pandemic changed the timing for a lot of projects, what’s the big deal? Well, the film version of Hamilton was supposed to be released this coming October (2021). But instead, it was released on Disney+ in the middle of last year, and has been a popular streaming choice. For me and many others who have seen this version of Hamilton (in my case, several times), In the Heights comes off as a delightful but pale early version of a Lin-Manuel Miranda work, a great first draft for the deeper and richer Hamilton.

Is that unfair to In the Heights? Yes, but it’s still the way many are going to see it, with the monumental Hamilton firmly sitting in the background. It’s energetic (too much at times) and colorful, and its focus on a specific neighborhood and cultural community will always make it focused and relevant. (Disclosure: My family lived in Manhattan in the ‘70s and ‘80s—for the most part in a Hispanic neighborhood—and we had friends who lived in Washington Heights. The many New York City jokes hit home, and added to the experience.)

The film is a good half-hour too long, and feels like it just has to include large showstopper numbers that clearly worked better on stage. For a musician/singer like myself, those numbers have an attraction that might not work on others; my guess is that they will seem to go on too long and will be seen as distractions from the main story line/s.

Musicals always have the tremendous creative challenge of creating a universe in which people can sing and/or dance. Hamilton was essentially all-singing, but In the Heights, while having long and involved musical numbers, has many “normal” dialogue scenes as well. Opening as the film does with a large group number, it suggests that this is going to be all-singing as well, but then it settles down to going back and forth between spoken and singing/dancing scenes. Transitions are easy and natural, and nothing seems forced.

The plot is not the point, as the real point is Washington Heights—a place, not a story. But there is a central story, and many, many side ones as well. There are actually too many stories here, and the film loses its focus more than once. There are several attractive characters here whose stories we are interested in following, but the many group numbers often pull us away from our investment in these characters, and the abundant energy of the numbers isn’t enough to keep us as invested as we are in the individual people and their particular challenges.

Key among these people is Anthony Ramos, who occupies the soft, warm center of the film with a soft and warm character. What his character Usnavi does in the film and what he wants really doesn’t matter; it’s what Ramos radiates that matters. Ramos, who played the dual roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, easily holds this film together, and while only a decent singer and dancer, holds his own in those regards and has a strong screen presence of likeability and relatability. It will be fascinating to see where he goes to from here.

There has been a good deal of press around the presence of Jimmy Smits in a major role. The non-singing dramatic actor does a little bit of singing (well done) and some dance-like moves that can substitute for real dancing. He provides the gravitas of the piece, and while Ramon remains the standout, Smits fills his role well.

The two female romantic leads are lovely and have lovely voices. But after hearing what Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo did with Miranda’s words and music in Hamilton, these two sounded more like Disney princesses. They are competent actors and very good singers, but they suffer by comparison (again, unfair, but real).

A real standout among the supporting playes is Tony nominee (for the stage version of In the Heights) Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela Claudia, and provides some real heart in the first half of the film. Then in the second half, she steals the film for a while with a showstopper number that reveals a surprisingly strong voice and a command we didn’t see coming. After all the big numbers (on the streets, in the pool, etc.), this is the number that really lifts the film. I was thinking in the first half of the film that hers was the character and performance that might draw a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Watching her big number (“Paciencia Y Fe”) only confirmed that.

In contrast, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela has a similar number that showcases her energy and talents. But “Carnaval Del Barrio” is one big number too many, and reminds us of the difference between stage and film. My guess is that it worked well on the stage. It could easily have been cut or even drastically shortened. Coming as it does toward the end of the film, it tends to draw things out when things need to be wrapped up.

Multi-hyphenate Miranda, who originated the lead role of Usnavi on stage, makes a fun appearance as a piragua salesman. He sounds better and stronger than ever before, certainly more than in the film version of Hamilton or Mary Poppins Returns. Another even smaller cameo appearance as the Mister Softee man is provided by Christopher Jackson, who along with Leslie Odom Jr., was one of my two favorite Hamilton performers. (Jackson played George Washington.) The most beautiful male voice in the film is Corey Hawkins’; he plays Benny, and I could have heard a lot more from him.

Then there is a completely non-musical performance by music legend Marc Anthony, playing a straight, down-and-dirty role that wasn’t in the original play. He does a very good job, but it’s hard not to see the superstar under the tattoos and grit. Another supporting performance that gets stronger and more satisfying as it goes along is that of Sonny, played by the young Gregory Diaz IV. His part becomes more important as the film goes along, and really blossoms near the end. This is a multi-talented young actor that is well worth watching out for. He sings, dances, acts, and possesses a strong screen presence, especially for someone so young.

There are a few problems with the main love story. Ramos as Usnavi is just a little too hesitant and shy with Vanessa  (Melissa Varrera), and that gets old quickly. Also, during a scene where he supposedly “abandons” her, believability is strained to the breaking point both in what supposedly occurs and in how it’s shot. Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) generally does a good job balancing the group numbers with the individual story, but this scene—an important one in the romance plot—doesn’t work. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it hurt.

The film goes into magical realism in one number for no good reason, and ends up reminding everyone of La La Land. Not sure what this brought to the film. Since there hadn’t been anything other than the usual suspension of disbelief that most musicals have, the scene was confusing and a bit distracting.

In spite of the overwhelming marketing campaign, the film doesn’t seem to be doing all that well. With a $55 million dollar budget plus marketing costs to cover, the film hasn’t even cracked the $20 million mark internationally. Is it worth seeing? It depends. If you’re a musical or Miranda completist, it’s worth seeing, and Ramos is now officially a star and worth watching. What it has going for it is a not-quite-unique musical style (see Hamilton), some good performers, and a specific focus on a community and a place. But it doesn’t have a song you’ll be humming on the way home (not that it has to…), it overreaches, and it’s too long. Your call.

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 45+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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