With his play performed on Broadway IN THE HEIGHTS Lin-Manuel Miranda’s status as an absolute musical genius manifested itself, who later also caused ecstasy with “Hamilton”. The feature film version of his work now comes from Jon M. Chu. But the effort to tell a whole series of fateful stories between all the spectacular dance performances turns out to be a drag on what is inherently a highly dynamic film. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: In the Heights (USA 2021)
The lights come on in Washington Heights… Just outside the 181st Street subway station, the scent of a Cafecito Caliente hangs in the air, where a kaleidoscope of dreams gathers this vibrant and tight-knit community. At the center of it all is the likeable, charismatic bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who saves every penny from the daily grind while hoping, dreaming and singing about a better life. He knows everyone in his neighborhood and experiences all the dramas, romances and adventures of his friends firsthand. For example, that of Nina (Leslie Grace), who returns home from college surprisingly early. Or Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the eccentric owner of a hair salon. The aging Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) holds it all together and, like Usnavi, follows the hustle and bustle in Washington Heights every day until a gigantic power outage occurs…
Anyone who isn’t at home in the film-centric social media bubble, absorbing news and information about film productions, actors and filmmakers, might not have come across the name Lin-Manuel Miranda too often . In the USA (and among all the people who are active in the cinematic sector), the New York native has long been a megastar. Not necessarily because of what he’s done since 1996 before the camera – here he was mainly seen in small supporting roles in individual series episodes and less acclaimed feature films. No, his surge in popularity began the moment he took over the soundtracks and musical accompaniment for several Disney films (including “Moana”) and then preferred to devote himself to Broadway. His musical “Hamilton” about the American founding father Alexander Hamilton, which Miranda worked on from 2007 to 2015 and whose Disney+ broadcast won a Golden Globe at the beginning of the year, was not only showered with awards, but has also been the highest-grossing musical since 2016 of the world. A few years earlier, Miranda tried out “In the Heights”. An ode to the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, which is primarily inhabited by various Latino communities. Miranda knows this district all too well and manages – both in the musical and in the film – to transfer its charm and joie de vivre to his audience. The fact that none of this really catches on the big screen is mainly due to the fact that not everything that happens on stage also works in the cinema.
Osnavi (Anthony Ramos) is where all the threads of the neighborhood come together.
It only takes a few minutes and Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich”) shows off the full extent of his directing skills, which are precisely tailored to this material. The song “In the Heights”, which can already be heard in the trailer, from which individual motifs are varied again and again and can be heard in the background, sets the rhythm – in the truest sense of the word. Cinematographer Alice Brooks (“Emma.”) whirls through the streets of Washington Heights with an impressive mix of dynamism and precision (incidentally, it was filmed just a few meters away from Stephen Spielberg’s set for “West Side Story”), which captures the liveliness of the district without losing an overview. Because one thing the The heart of the film are the singing and dancing interludes, often choreographed with huge crowds of people. This also emerges from the opening. But first we gradually get to know all the important characters from “In the Heights” who come and go from the protagonist Usnavi, the operator of the general store Cafecito Caliente. Each of them sings a few lines and introduces themselves and their dreams. The audience knows very early in the film that “In the Heights” is one thing above all: a lot. Or rather, that all the building blocks that make up the almost two and a half hour production are present in abundance. There are many characters, there is a lot of dancing and singing and despite the small setting of the Washington Heights district, there are countless individual set pieces. Yes, you can say: Something sensational always happens somewhere on the screen in these 143 minutes.
“There are many characters, there is a lot of dancing and singing and despite the small setting of the Washington Heights district, there are countless individual set pieces. Yes, you can say: Something sensational always happens somewhere on the screen in these 143 minutes.”
Due to the numerous, often brightly colored impressions with which “In the Heights” rains down on its audience, it is almost impossible to completely escape the charm of the production. At some point during these two and a half hours, there will be at least one moment for every viewer out there when they can no longer stay on the edge of their seats. The performance of the song “96,000,” for example, which spectacularly incorporates an outdoor swimming pool as a set piece – the brain teaser of all Washington Heights residents about what they would do with a lottery winnings of $96,000 – is undoubtedly one of the most impressive scenes of the show Films. In addition to the perfect staging in combination with the rousing pop and RnB rhythms, pretty much everything is right here. But this makes the scene surprisingly stand out from the rest. Not because the other musical numbers were less meticulously planned; on the contrary. “In the Heights” sets new standards in terms of perfection, even for musicals and dance films. Instead, in addition to the songs, which are only partially catchy, it is above all all the narrative parts – and therefore everything that is different between plays the musical numbers that cannot be carried away here. It goes without saying that a soundtrack that relies primarily on hip-hop and RnB sounds is a little more difficult to immediately catapult itself into the ear canals with the same level of energy as a pleasant mix of pop songs. On the other hand, however, “In the Heights” simply lacks catchy melodies with the exception of the title song and “96,000” – for this reason, the film should have a good chance of being liked more if you watch it several times.
Several hundred dancers can sometimes be seen in a single musical number.
On the musical stage, the rapid succession of different characters’ fates may still work; The individual characters mainly act as cues to introduce the next musical number. The film version of “In the Heights”, however, thinks bigger and tries to give every single main and supporting character (and there are very, very many of them!) their own storyline. No matter how long the running time is, it’s not enough for more than superficial discussions of well-known, sometimes very clichéd conflicts. And so it happens that the characters from “In the Heights” are nothing more than parts of a large show ensemble, some of which have more text than others. Perhaps the film would have even worked better without a chronologically told plot; For example, the men and women of Washington Heights came and went from Usnavi and told him their life stories in sketches. The script, written by Quiara Alegría Hudes based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, strives until the end to hold the numerous threads of her story together so that the impression of a well-rounded story is created. But without any personal connection to the characters, the narrative parts ultimately act as a brake on the music-heavy film passages. And so even a passionate couple’s dance scene against the backdrop of an overturned apartment complex (!) becomes somehow empty – even if the couple in love look at each other so adoringly.
“The film version of ‘In the Heights’, however, thinks bigger and tries to give every single main and supporting character (and there are very, very many of them!) their own storyline. No matter how long the running time is, it is not enough for more than superficial discussions of well-known, sometimes very clichéd conflicts.”
Nevertheless, “In the Heights” can conjure up a summer and vacation feeling in many places, which we can all use in the wake of what the corona pandemic has left in all of us. In particular, the cast’s enthusiasm for acting is infectious – and Anthony Ramos, who also has an important role in “Hamilton”, is simply a charming storyteller in whose hands you like to put yourself. As a young woman searching for her own path in life, the per se convincing newcomer Leslie Grace unfortunately falls victim to the superficial treatment of her plot. How fortunate that everyone affected by this problem can sing loudly and dance passionately in the next scene, so that the weak points in the content are forgotten for a few minutes.
Conclusion: It is extremely impressive how director Jon M. Chu managed to bring the musical and kaleidoscope of a New York neighborhood, originally conceived for the stage, to the screen. The effort is huge, the precision of the singing and dance choreographies is spectacular. But the soundtrack, of all things, hardly catches the ear, the content frays and distances the audience from the characters, so that there is ultimately little reality behind the beautiful appearance. What a disappointment!
“In the Heights” can be seen in USA cinemas from July 22, 2021.