In The Heights
LIN-MANUEL Miranda’s In the Heights, which he started working on in college and managed to stage on Broadway some nine years later, has finally made it to the big screen. It’s handsomely produced with a $55 million budget, shot on location in Washington Heights, and features a strikingly handsome cast of mostly young actors and a handful of recognizable veteran talents.
The movie is entertaining enough: the intertwining stories of largely Hispanic New Yorkers, sweating through one memorably hot summer as they pursue their various suenitos, or “little dreams.” Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) wants to return to the Dominican Republic to reopen his late father’s business, which is for sale; nail technician Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) wants an apartment downtown and a career as a fashion designer; Nina (Leslie Grace) wants a college degree from Stanford; dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants Nina, daughter of Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who owns the cab company he works for.
Throw in “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz) who wanted to save enough money to go back and visit the Dominican Republic after so many years away; Kevin, who sells off pieces of his company to help finance Nina’s tuition; Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) who wants to go to college someday; and Usnavi, who on top of wanting his father’s business wants to ask Vanessa out on a date. Oh, and the Piragua Guy (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who wants to recover the business he lost when a Softee truck started roaming his neighborhood.
I want to say it’s refreshing to see Hispanic faces telling Hispanic stories to a largely Hispanic and Afro-Latino beat… though there seem to be a lot of power ballads to my inexpert ears, and plenty of Broadway moments where the story stops dead on its tracks to allow a singer to hit his or her high note for at least a minute while we admire their tonsils. The rap lyrics don’t seem as intricately or cleverly written as in Mr. Miranda’s later Hamilton, though even that musical I found problematic, with its casting of black and Latin actors in the role of white patriarchs, largely whitewashing their role in slavery (for the record Hamilton’s own record was ambiguous: he supported abolition but didn’t let his stance jeopardize his relationships with George Washington and other influential slaveowners; he believed in freeing slaves, but also believed in property rights).
Jon Chu’s filmmaking serves this Miranda musical better than Thomas Kail’s did of Mr. Miranda’s more famous musical — this is a movie adaptation conceived as a movie, not an expensive high-def video recording lit mostly in red spots. The colors are bright, the camera active enough — though when the camera cuts to the beat and chops up Christopher Scott’s athletic choreography to insert sweeping swooping crane shots and other modern dance musical cliches you’re reminded that Mr. Chu’s previous work included Step Up 2 and Step Up 3D. We’re not cracking open and deconstructing the musical here folks, we’re just doing a big-budget music video, with short snippets ready to be uploaded to YouTube.
An aside: what would an interesting movie musical look like nowadays? Tossing out all the cliches would be nice; seeing a dance choreographer’s work intact would be nice. A more contemplative filmmaker with an actual vision would be nice, someone like, say, Tsai Ming-liang (The Hole and The Wayward Cloud anyone?). Also happens to be Asian, though not Asian-American.
Doesn’t help that Chu alludes to older, better musicals — the pool synchronized swimming number recalls Busby Berkeley and the best of Esther Williams (no waterskis or rising towers or breathtaking dives alas, and the sparklers are reserved for another number); the dance up against the side of an apartment building recalls Fred Astaire’s number in Royal Wedding, only they did it without computers. Trouble is watching these reminders makes you want to pause HBO Max to go into Amazon or Criterion to look for those older, better musicals instead.
Speaking of ethnic New York neighborhoods during a hot summer, Spike Lee’s earlier Do The Right Thing (and at one point this movie cracks open a few fire hydrants in apparent tribute) pretty much sums up my problem with this picture: Miranda’s is a Disneyfied New York, more a Washington Heightsland complete with guide rails and waiting lines for the rides and water park slides than an actual New York neighborhood. The streets are too clean (I did at one point jab my finger at a corner of the screen to exclaim “Look! A piece of litter!”), the actors too well-scrubbed. Where’s the grime? The rats? The enormous piles of trash bags, not just in Washington Heights but practically every neighborhood — Woodside, Flushing, Belmont, Coney Island? As if on cue one singer does walk past a pile of black bags — but discreetly tucked away in an alley, all carefully knotted up). More, where’s the ’tude? The beauty parlor number (in a shop the size of a Broadway stage) promises a little Latin sass (I thought the forehead waxing bit to be the movie’s comic highlight) but few of the cast speak, much less sing, any profanity, maybe the occasional “shit!” (not enough to raise the PG-13 rating to R). Dads hug daughters, daughters hug dads, everyone hugs the neighborhood abuela; sure, everyone has problems and no one has money, but there’s nothing that can’t be resolved with a little determination, a lot of love, and a rousing Broadway number.
Compare Mr. Lee’s provocation of a film, which starts with Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and ends with Mr. Lee himself hurling a garbage can through a plate glass window. I miss the bitterness at being put down all the time every time; I miss the hot fiery fury that minorities feel when faced with everyday institutional racism (the most In the Heights manages to stoke up is mild dismay, maybe a little melancholy, a brief DACA demonstration that one might mistake for a Disneyland Main Street parade). The loudest voice one hears in this picture is yelling “We’re here and we want our dreams!” (also “Don’t forget to buy your daily Lotto ticket!”). The loudest voice heard in Do the Right Thing goes “We’re here we’re not going anywhere, and we’re not taking any more shit from you!” Take a guess which one I find more honest.