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Review- In the Heights

Clementine Scott reviews the recent film adaption of Lin Manuel Miranda's 2005 debut musical.

“No pare, sigue, sigue” (a Spanish aphorism which translates as “don’t stop, keep going, keep going”) is a particularly catchy recurring motif from the score of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2005 debut musical In the Heights. It is this indefatigably optimistic spirit which defines both the stage musical and Jon M. Chu’s recent film adaptation. Originally slated for release in the summer of 2020, In the Heights instead provides ebullient viewing as the first film many of us have seen on the big screen since cinemas closed their doors. A celebration of the power of families and local communities and of the possibility of sueñitos (“little dreams”) coming true even in the most adverse of circumstances, it is the perfect antidote to a year in lockdown.

The film focusses on the hopes and dreams of an ensemble cast living in Upper Manhattan’s majority-Latinx Washington Heights neighbourhood. Anthony Ramos’ charismatic protagonist-narrator Usnavi and his love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) both dream of moving away from their neighbourhood as it rapidly becomes gentrified – Vanessa to a downtown apartment and a fashion career, Usnavi to his deceased parents’ home in the Dominican Republic – while Nina (Leslie Grace) struggles with financial pressure and racial microaggressions at Stanford University. These underlying tensions come to fruition alongside the revelation that someone in the community has bought a winning lottery ticket, and climax during a neighbourhood power outage.

This subject matter has the potential to feel small-scale and everyday, especially in comparison to Miranda’s later historical epic Hamilton. However, like many great movie musicals, In the Heights employs music, dance and theatricality in a way that elevates these mundane concerns to matters of world-changing importance. The eponymous opening number, which posits Usnavi’s bodega as the spiritual centre of the neighbourhood and casts Ramos as a deeply convincing “boy next door”, lends an almost mythical quality to Washington Heights. This quality is enhanced with the slightly corny yet effective framing device which positions the entire film as a story read by Usnavi to his future children on the Caribbean island of his dreams. Cinematographer Alice Brooks’ occasional use of fantastical elements – a feature which is often liable to ward sceptics away from the movie musical genre – is also effective in granting mythological proportions to a domestic tale. The use of graffiti imagery “spray-painted” in the air by the male leads at the start of ‘96,000’ (a childlike visualisation of the characters’ dreams of what they would spend their lottery money on) sticks especially in the mind.

Musical theatre as a genre has always excelled at walking the fine line between telling the stories of esoteric communities – the shtetl of Fiddler on the Roof, for example, a musical Miranda has cited as an important influence for Heights – and extracting messages from these stories which can resonate with more diverse audiences. Heights similarly tempers universal observations about the power of family and community with a deep affection specifically for the cultures of the Latinx diaspora in New York. Chu’s direction on the blockbuster numbers is unafraid to move the camera away from the dance sequences and let it linger on mouthwatering pernil and arroz con pollo being prepared, or on the impressive acrylic nails and platform shoes of the neighbourhood salon owners — the cinematic equivalent of Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) mantra that Latinos should “assert dignity in small ways”. 

As a longtime fan of the original musical’s cast album, I may risk slipping into pedantry by critiquing the ways in which the plot of Heights was changed on its journey from stage to screen. Nevertheless, the extent to which Nina and Benny’s love story was sidelined in the film is regrettable, especially given how it addressed the uneasy racial dynamic between Benny, the only non-Latinx lead character, and Nina’s disapproving father. The removal of certain key songs, especially ‘Sunrise’, the intimate Act Two opener performed the morning after Nina and Benny’s first night together, led to the development of their love story feeling rushed in comparison to that of Usnavi and Vanessa. Admittedly, some of the screen time gained with the reduction of Benny and Nina’s storyline was used to explore the status of Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) as an undocumented immigrant. However, this was a minor subplot at best, and thus felt like a noble but underdeveloped attempt to update the musical with references to issues relevant to America in 2021, at the expense of the storylines which made the original special.

Despite these misguided alterations, Heights is unafraid to experiment with the flexibility of the movie musical format, and consequently never falls into the trap of feeling like a filmed stage production. This experimentation is employed most effectively in Abuela Claudia’s moving autobiographical solo number ‘Paciencia y Fe’. While in the stage musical this was a simple sung soliloquy about an elderly Cuban immigrant, the film version is one of Chu’s most boundary-pushing moments as a director. In contrast to the colours and vibrancy of the other musical set pieces, ‘Paciencia y Fe’ takes place in a dreamlike version of the New York subway, and positions Abuela Claudia trapped in a subway carriage and alone in a crowd of ghostly interpretative dancers, seemingly representing the different pressures and anxieties described in the song’s lyrics.  During two other emotionally resonant numbers, Nina and Vanessa’s solos ‘Breathe’ and ‘It Won’t Be Long Now’, Chu and Brooks are unafraid to use dream sequences — an apparition of Nina’s younger self, Vanessa’s desperate run down a busy avenue — to transfer the emotional weight of songs written for the stage to a specifically cinematic context. Though In the Heights’ willingness to play with the structure and staging of the original musical has its shortcomings, it demonstrates a fearlessness which sets it apart from more straightforward stage-to-screen adaptations.

Given Miranda and Chu’s much-stated desire to use In the Heights to amplify underrepresented voices in Hollywood, in the vein of Black Panther or Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, it would be remiss not to mention the controversy surrounding the lack of Afro-Latinx representation in the film. According to the most recent American Community Survey, 59.29% of the population of Washington Heights identified as non-white. While this diversity is represented to an extent by the casting of Leslie Grace and by an ensemble largely made up of people of colour, it is still troubling that all of the other leads were played by white or white-passing Latinx performers. After several detailed critiques from Afro-Latinx writers, Miranda did offer a heartfelt apology for the limited representation of his community.

Nonetheless, concerning comments continued to be made by cast members such as Barrera about how the light-skinned lead actors were selected because they “embodied each character in the [sic] fullest extent”, implying that the characters were never written with anyone other than a light-skinned performer in mind. Though In the Heights’ goal as a piece of Latinx representation is laudable and perhaps unachievable given the size and diversity of the Latinx diaspora in the US, its shortcomings may prove to be a lesson to future filmmakers telling the stories of underrepresented communities.

Despite these questionable choices and serious missteps, In the Heights shines a spotlight on communities whose stories deserve to be told. It provides a much-needed reminder of the importance of optimism, family, and the unique power of the movie musical, and one could definitely do worse when finding a suitable film for their first post-lockdown cinema trip.

In the Heights is in cinemas now. 

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