Big-screen movie musicals have had a rough go of it in recent years. After the unexpected success of the groundbreaking movie musical homage “La La Land” in 2016, there came a slump.
Fiascos such as 2017’s “The Greatest Showman” (insert vomit emoji here), 2018’s “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” (sorry Cher!), 2019’s “Cats” (litter box disaster) and 2020’s “The Prom” (flunk), didn’t help the cause.
Like a character in a movie musical, Hollywood is not known for giving up, certain that triumph is one big song and dance number away. This might explain why there is a new crop of live-action musicals headed our way including “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” (September), “Dear Evan Hansen” (September) and Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” (December).
The hotly anticipated movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In The Heights” (Warner Brothers) gets the ball rolling in June. Directed by Jon M. Chu, known for “Crazy Rich Asians,” as well as “Jem and the Holograms” (!), the slightly bloated movie could afford to lose about 20 minutes of its runtime. That said, “In The Heights,” is nevertheless a euphoric celebration of roots, culture and identity.
Moving (awkwardly) back and forth between a Washington Heights barrio and (what appears to be) a Caribbean beach, “In The Heights” is the tale of “a block that was disappearing in a faraway land,” as told by Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, a frequent Miranda collaborator). His captive audience consists of four kids, including Iris (Olivia Perez), whose connection to Usnavi is revealed much later.
Usnavi lives with his “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), who, while childless, “adopted the whole block as her own.” Usnavi runs a popular bodega with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), where, in a big opening number, we are introduced to most of the prominent residents of the ‘hood. Kevin (Jimmy Smits) runs the cab company and is the father of Stanford student Nina (Leslie Grace making her feature-length debut). There’s a gossipy trio of hairdressers, including salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), her life partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and curvy Cuca (Dascha Polanco). Benny (Corey Hawkins) works as a dispatcher for Kevin and is involved with Nina. Creative Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of being a fashion designer and escaping Washington Heights for lower Manhattan, is the object of Usnavi’s affection, but she has no clue because he’s too shy to tell her. Usnavi has dreams of his own, which include returning to the Dominican Republic and reopening the beachside cabana bar that was run by his late father.
“In The Heights” is also driven by a countdown clock and a thermometer. Most of the action begins three days before a citywide summertime power blackout when the temperature is in the low 80s. As the days pass and temps begin to climb, so do emotions and passions. Hopes are revealed — Nina wants to leave school, Vanessa wants to rent a downtown flat, Usnavi imagines the benefits of having sold a winning lottery ticket, Daniela plans to relocate her shop — and many are dashed. But during the blackout and following powerless days, the characters discover they are more resilient than they thought.
For all of its cultural messaging, including a rally for Dreamers and the undocumented, “In The Heights” occasionally falls short. Daniela and Carla are supposed to be a couple, but aside from dancing together during a couple of numbers, it’s difficult to determine what their status is. In fact, the queerest moment does occur in Daniela’s salon, but it involves a queer client.
As is to be expected from Miranda, the man behind the insanely popular and beloved “Hamilton,” the “In The Heights” tunes are catchy AF. Miranda effortlessly intertwines ballads, hip-hop, and huge show-stoppers into the score, which go a long way in qualifying “In The Heights” as a classic, and a bright spot in this year of movie musicals.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.