Film Preview: In the Heights

The stage to screen transfer is never a straightforward process and what a show loses in immediacy, direct flow and the intensity of live performance, a movie director must replace with imaginative shot choices and enough visual flair to not only fill the expanse of a cinema screen but to overcome the physical separation from its arguably more passive audience. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s much anticipated filmic treatment of their own stage musical In the Heights has much to recommend it, a rare opportunity to see representations of and diversity within New York communities centered around the deprived but beloved neighbourhood of Washington Heights. And while the film never entirely overcomes the flaws in the original stage show, Director John M Chu’s contemporised soundtrack and integrated choreographic sequences speak to emerging trends in the style and impact of twenty-first-century movie musicals.

It may not have been universally admired but La La Land was a game-changer for the genre, repurposing a cliched format for modern audiences while simultaneously paying homage to the great technicolor song and dance films offered by the big studios during the Golden Age of the movie musical. Director Damien Chazelle’s techniques – which arguably pay their own debt to Baz Lurhmann’s equally genre-busting Moulin Rouge – were deliberately and effectively disruptive both within the story and the wider musical movie industry. In particular, the playing of instruments and the process of creating music becomes as dynamic as the character stories within his films.

The creation of dreamlike states and glamorous locations in La La Land were enhanced by swirling, even fizzing camerawork, and big, sweeping tracking shots that move to the beat of the music rather than the path of the character, following its leads, for example, through a giant house party that even takes the audience into the obligatory LA pool and underwater to create the almost riotous excess of this lifestyle. Similarly, Chazelle offers grand romance in the finale section as Mia and Sebastian travel through a fantasy sequence that distills their lives and speaks to what might have been if only the Director wasn’t really contrasting these unashamedly grandiose moments with the drab and disappointing reality that the lovers were really living in which he uses sophisticated cinematographic styles to burst the bubble of the Hollywood dream.

In the Heights employs some of these same visual narratives to tell its story, understanding the centrality of the big set piece moments when the neighbourhood comes together at the local swimming pool, in after-dark festivals and in celebration to create vibrant and fast-paced dance sequences reminiscent of La La Land as Chu feeds his camera into, above and around the big movement numbers to emphasise and partially create the heat, mass and intensity of the action.

It gives these parts of the film an immersive energy, a chance for the audience not just to aesthetically admire the precision and skill of the dancers from a respectful distance, but to imagine the proximity of the camera and, through rapid cut and track shots, create the feeling of being in the action as well – something which distinguishes modern movie musicals. A fantastic Busby-Berkeley-inspired sequence sees the characters decamp to the local swimming pool to fight the heat and dream of winning the lottery as they sing 96,000. The final segment staged in the water uses synchronised swimmers, floating lilos and reclining songstresses to create one of the film’s strongest visual spectacles.

And like La La Land, the fantasy sequence retains its place within In the Heights including a sequence that directly echoes Mia and Sebastian’s ability to defy physics and waltz through the stars at the Griffith Observatory. In their parting number, College-student Nina and taxi operator Benny sing When the Sun Goes Down from a balcony overlooking the Hudson river and the bridge that will soon take Nina back to the city and some other life. Here again, physics gives way to romance as the couple find themselves in a Christopher Nolan world of rotating buildings and changing perspectives as the couple dance up the side of their tenement block, over the windows of their astonished neighbours’ flats and across the balconies. The CGI isn’t quite as sharp as La La Land nor the concept as rich as perhaps Gene Kelly’s layered dream sequences from Singin’ in the Rain, but this fantasy premise in which love allows people to view the world differently is part of the visual language of In the Heights and its more contemporary choreography.

In fact, where Chu’s film particularly excels is in these big dance moments peppered throughout the film, and on screen these complex creations which sometimes involve what at least is made to look like hundreds of people are visually arresting and energetic while emphasising the community spirit that sits at the heart of the film. The influence of Chazelle and his musical director forebears is notable here too, not least in set pieces staged on the streets of Washington Heights including Carnaval del Barrio and Abuela Claudia’s fantastic dream sequence during the blackout in which she leaves the style of the film behind and moves into an imagined world of beautifully designed ghost figures in 50s and 60s styles dancing in rooms and endless corridors, a stylised representative memory of her life and one of the most impactful pieces of jazz choreography in the movie.

The influence of the LA highway opening number from La La Land is clear, focusing in on individual stories within the overall narrative of the dance but retaining control of the camera to also take in the bigger picture when everyone comes together in unison in what are both show-stopping and traffic-stopping sequences. But while Chazelle phases out these grand numbers through the film as the Hollywood dream slowly curdles into a greyer vision of a lonely city, Miranda and Hudges’s story retains a sense of hope and as characters start to move on, In the Heights variously uses dance as a tool for community building, as a memory of something that is fading away and for sustaining dreams that all of the characters somehow retain of a better life out there somewhere.

In the Heights is tapestry drama uniting collective memories of the area, its people and their Dominican and Cuban heritage with a common American dream of getting out, of finding a better life through hard work, perseverance and a, perhaps, naive belief in meritocracy – a notion questioned in the second half of the story. The show underscores this wider kaleidoscopic examination of community drivers by charting the individual paths for a group of characters each planning different routes out of the borough. But a patchwork narrative can sometimes be patchy and, like the stage incarnation, this filmed version stumbles when trying to strike a balancing between the personal and group levels of storytelling.

The experiences of the younger characters are foregrounded – Vanessa looking to be a designer in Manhattan, Nina unsure about continuing at Stanford and Usnavi who runs the shop and wants to move back to the Dominican Republic, the latter fulfilling dreams set for them by their parents and grandparents. And each of these perspectives is richly told as individuals struggle to get a foot on the ladder, questioning their ability to endure and noting the incipient racism that holds them back in the world beyond the Heights. And while these emotional and romantic entanglements have much to say about the formation of immigrant communities and the complexities of hybrid identity in second and third generation families born in the US but immersed in the heritage of their forbears, they don’t have quite the same fizz as the group numbers when Chu looks at the bigger picture.

Partly this is the minimal time given to characters beyond this core group and while gossipy beauty salon owner Daniela or taxi firm owner Kevin (Nina’s father) feature, their own experience is either downplayed or absorbed within the neighbourhood sections. This affects the group numbers because the audience is less familiar with and therefore less invested in these trajectories. As a result, the intense emotional response that the film wants the audience to feel for Nina, Vanessa and our guide to Washington Heights Usnavi, is not replicated as effectively amongst the wider group of central characters who become comedy sideshows or barriers to the happiness of the core group.

Hamilton-alumnus Antony Ramos plays Usnavi who is the film’s eyes and heart, retelling the story not to the audience but to a group of children in the future from where he reflects back on the events of a few years before – a new frame for the narrative that also advances the stage show’s original conclusion. Ramos is a charismatic lead and whether mooning after love-interest Vanessa, caring for his beloved Abuela Claudia or serving the needs of his, often cheeky, customers, Usnavi anchors the film, connecting the sometimes disparate embroidery. Ramos captures all of the pride his character has in the neighbourhood as well as the conflict he feels between his heritage, the present and the future.

Melissa Barrera is a sympathetic Vanessa whose big dreams of a downtown apartment and entry into an elite world of New York trendsetters is well managed as the character explores a future identity that she wants to adopt. Barrera captures the hope and pain in those aspirations well, and, while rummaging in bins for fabric off-cuts and painter’s rags, Barrera simultaneously demonstrates Vanessa’s ambition and talent with just how far she still has to go in achieving it. Leslie Grace’s Nina and Corey Hawkins’s Benny are a slightly diluted second couple but Nina is a projected version of Vanessa, and having tasted society beyond the Heights, Grace captures all of Nina’s feelings of displacement, the pressure of her father’s expectations and need to overcome her own fears to fully claim the intellectual place she has earned.

As a modern movie musical, In the Heights employs many of its shot, direction and choreographic techniques to create a swirling visual experience that immerses the audience in the story. And while it doesn’t always strike quite the right balance between spectacle and emotional investment, Miranda and Hudges’s film is still a relatively rare example of a musical about working class lives and aspirations that also expands on the experience of immigrant communities with multifaceted identities. With so few of these on stage, it stands to reason that even fewer make the transition to the screen. A significant step forward then, and one that Steven Spielberg’s reprised West Side Story later in the year may advance as movie musicals continue to evolve.

In the Heights is released in the UK on 18 June. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

About Maryam Philpott

This site takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over a thousand shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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