From the first hits of the clave’s rhythm in the opening number, In The Heights takes audiences on a personal journey through a tight-knit community in Washington Heights, New York.
The film is an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara AlegrÃa Hudes’ 2008 Broadway musical, and central to the story is Usnavi de la Vega (played by Anthony Ramos) who dreams of a better life in La Dominican Republic.
Similar to his stage counterpart, Usnavi acts as the narrator: featuring neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), his friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) who works for dispatching taxis, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), the boss of Benny and college dad student Nina (Leslie Grace) and her sweetheart (Usnavi) Vanessa (Melissa Barrera).
Adapting a musical to the screen can be overwhelming. Characters, storylines, and songs often need to be truncated (or even cut out entirely) to accommodate faster-paced medium, which can leave fans of the original disappointed.
For the most part, however, In The Heights makes the transition a success, thanks in large part to the energy and reach of the musical numbers.
This is not surprising, given that director Jon M Chu’s early director credits include Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D, and he is trained as a dancer himself. In fact, in 2010, Chu told Asia Pacific Arts that including dance in his films seemed “obvious” because it is an art form that triggers his creativity.
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of In The Heights is Chu’s obvious love for dancing. He has the ability to blend deep shots that showcase a truly incredible number of backup dancers while also highlighting the intricacies of Christopher Scott’s choreography; mundane movements – like a parent brushing their child’s hair or workers receiving their morning coffee con leche (Spanish for “cafe au lait”) – are woven into breathtaking sequences that seem to capture the promise that everyone in Washington Heights has a job and a dream.
By filming on location in the real Washington Heights and filling the backdrop with dancers of all shapes, ages and ethnicities, In The Heights attempts to balance the most fantastical elements of musical theater.
This is most successful in the issue Paciencia Y Fe, which juxtaposes Cuban and New York aesthetics to illustrate a complex and emotional tribute to the immigrant. Sung by Abuela de Merediz and shot inside the 191st Street station and subway tunnel, this is the emotional heart of Chu’s In The Heights.
Other highlights include No Me Diga, in which salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) jokes and chats with Nina and Vanessa, while her clients contribute to the beat with intricate choreography; and Carnaval del barrio – a literal street party; and When the Sun Goes Down – which pays homage to Fred Astaire’s gravity-defying dance in Royal Wedding.
However, there is a brilliance in Chu’s adaptation that doesn’t fully reflect what made the Broadway production so interesting. Because as much In The Heights is about community, it’s also about economics and what it means to be racialized in America.
The community of Usnavi is slowly becoming more middle-class, the businesses of his friends are regularly excluded from the neighborhood. Even during the song 96,000 – in which Usnavi learns his winery sold a winning lottery ticket – Benny dreams of using the money to go to business school, and Usnavi sings about it taking “the major. part of that money just to save my ass from financial ruin. ” Yet Chu’s whimsical aesthetic often creates a real distance from these harsh realities.
That’s not to say he doesn’t try to tackle real-world issues.
In an effort to reflect some of the current concerns of Latino communities, including immigration and the rights of undocumented migrants in a community like Washington Heights, Usnavi Sonny’s cousin (Gregory Diaz IV) has been redesigned as a dreamer – a reference to the Deferred Action Policy on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which affects those brought into the United States illegally before the age of 16.
In 2017, President Donald Trump decided to cancel the DACA program, putting approximately 649,000 immigrants at risk of deportation. Addressing serious social issues is certainly a valid idea, and not unprecedented in musicals. The problem is that this exploration is not particularly well executed or developed. Making Sonny’s status as a dreamer a closely guarded secret – a secret even Usnavi, his own cousin doesn’t know – sounds too didactic.
Likewise, another change in the on-screen scene is that the motivating factor for Nina to leave college is that she was frisked by campus security when her white roommate couldn’t locate a gem. No doubt it would have been a humbling experience, but Nina – the only Afro-Latina in the main cast – tells the story as if it was the first time that she had been the victim of racial profiling.
In The Heights has received criticism of colorism (prejudice or discrimination against dark-skinned individuals, usually among people of the same ethnic or racial group) and the erasure of Afro-Latin characters. In apologies on Twitter, Miranda thanked those who raised their concerns and acknowledged that “in trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we [the creative team behind the film] below.”
Ultimately, In The Heights is a film with a beautiful aesthetic, vibrant music, and a charismatic cast – and one that is sure to be an enjoyable viewing experience. Don’t overthink its internal consistency.
Dans les Hauteurs is in theaters from June 24.