Casting my biased for musicals aside, Lin Manuelle Maranda’s In The Heights is joyous. During a particular sequence in the narrative, two characters take each other by the hand, dancing along the side of a building like their Spider-Man. At that moment, I could see the film telling the audience proudly that a musical is a light event not to be taken entirely seriously. I suppose that’s the appeal in Mr. Miranda’s work. Hamilton depicts the tragic life of an accomplished man in a hip-hop style, making the subject’s story fun to approach. It knows it’s blatantly breaking the fourth wall but gleefully doing so without coming off as snarky.
The music has the same style you’d expect from Hamilton. If you’re not familiar with Hamilton, and you’re viewing Into The Heights from a fresh perspective, then you’re in for a treat. To sound like the white guy I am, I’m not into hip hop. But I like the tune of Miranda’s work that’s uniquely his, which is an updated Deaf Poetry Jam. With the film clocking in at close to two and a half hours, some pieces aren’t very catchy, but those moments are rare.
When characters are singing lines that could be spoken, such as “Hi, how are you?” I’m not rolling my eyes as I would be during a Tom Hooper musical. Les Misérables and Cats are OK to perform on stage but look ridiculous on screen. Classic musicals like The Sound of Music worked since it was about a family of singers to match the narrative. Plus they sang on a stage. Even a film of that nature with such a dark undercurrent was whimsical in tone. Here the tone along with the theme is “just go with it.”
The plot is familiar; Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) reminisces his life to a group of children who want to keep knowing more. What follows is a guy meets girl story. I didn’t buy how the girl ended up dating the guy. But I loved how it ended. How everything ties together to the narration is corny, but the kind I like. It knows what it is, so just go with it because you’ve earned it, movie.
Everything is as over the top as it should be, pumping life back into the veins of audiences. Watching this upon my return to the theatre since Tenant, the experience was far more communal than expected. With a limited screening only held to the press and word of mouth, the attendees ranged from all walks of life.
The celebration of the Latino community is a welcome change of pace. Frequently it’s the grimmer side of urban Latino neighborhoods represented on screen. Often we see neighborhoods like the ones in this movie riddled with crime. Here the theme of the film is to love what you have. Celebrate your neighborhood. Not, watch out your neighbor might shoot you. Crazy Rich Asians filmmaker Jon M. Chu does a fine job swirling the camera to match the music’s energy. Having not seen CRA before, I’m now curious what all the fuss was about. Entire pieces are sung in Spanish without subtitles, but I was so swept up at the moment I could care less if I didn’t understand any of it. The audience clapped, laughed, and clapped some more in something that felt like returning to normalcy.
I’m wondering how long Mr. Miranda’s work will evolve. Will his musicals be a style that will be imitated by others, often poorly? Will Mr. Miranda, in that instance, have to prove with other, newer musicals why the original artist creates superior work? Will we be overly aware of LMM style making us bored of it? Time will tell; meanwhile, I look forward to his future work.
In The Heights will premiere in Theaters and HBO Max on June 11