Lin-Manuel Miranda’s screen adaptation of his Broadway play hits highs and lows.
In the Heights is more difficult to review than I anticipated. The first half hour is such a rush of energy, music, and choreography that I was star-struck. Then the movie settles into its rhythm and you notice the bare patches underneath the gaudy exterior. When the film builds up to those crazy crescendos that mark its big musical numbers, it’s an awe-inspiring spectacle. When it’s setting those pieces up, it can run out of steam.
In the Heights (2021)
In Washington Heights, N.Y., the scent of warm coffee hangs in the air just outside of the 181st St. subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies a vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is a likable and magnetic bodega owner, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) who hopes, imagines, and sings about a better life.
For fans of the Broadway play, you’ll recognize the neighborhood, even if a few of the places have changed. Miranda reworks elements of the live show to fit a theatrical release, mostly in the form of making offstage events explicit (the passing of Abuela Claudia) while also teasing a change to the way the original story ends. I found this latter bit problematic.
It Was Only a Little Dream, All Along!
We lead with Usnavi telling his story to a group of children on a white-sands beach, implying that he finally achieved his dream of returning to the Dominican Republic to re-establish his late father’s business there. It’s one of the central tensions of the story: will Usnavi follow his “little dream,” or will he stay in the heights to pursue his romance with Vanessa? By leading with the frame narrative of Usnavi already on the beach, the romance between him and Vanessa becomes more of a tragic, doomed affair instead of a real “will they/won’t they?” drama. Then, when it’s revealed that they do indeed get together and stay in the Heights, it makes the whole set-up feel deceptive.
I can see why Miranda employs the frame narrative: it allows Ramos to narrate the story, making certain plot points easier to understand and obviating the need for yet more “exposition via soliloquy” moments, of which the film has plenty already. I just thought it was executed in an inelegant manner, thus coming off like a bait and switch.
Heights and Lows.
The energy of In the Heights makes you feel like you’re on a roller-coaster. We get just a little exposition before we roar through a fantastic set of opening numbers, including a gigantic, whole-block dance scene. Then we coast a bit as the characters we just met deepen their story, usually through a solo. We alternate between big numbers and smaller songs, before hitting the loop-de-loop at the end of the first act where almost everyone’s dreams are seemingly thwarted. Then its back to ups and downs till the finish line, in terms of both pace and the energy of the songs.
Roller-coasters are great…but you don’t ride them for two and a half hours! I found myself getting fatigued, even by the amazing parts. It’s a bit too much to sustain, both for the film and for the audience. There were definitely moments where I thought “this scene is going on longer than strictly necessary” or “we already kinda know this plot point, why are we listening to a solo about it again?”
Play to Your Strengths.
In the Heights definitely shows its Broadway DNA. Its pace and structure shouts “I’m a play!” and that usually bugs me. You’re not a play. You’re a movie. There are concessions that need to be made to the form, and different expectations. Some adaptations of plays handle the freedom film offers better than others. Fences retained most of its stage structure, while adding just a few scenes that really shine a light on elements already in the play. In the Heights uses its expanded setting and visual range to deepen the story, but it also gets a little indulgent. I can see where the ability to show every little detail of a beloved neighborhood would be catnip. But a little goes a long way, and its easy to stray past “a day in the life of a neighborhood” into “a lifetime in the life of a neighborhood.”
I wanted to like In the Heights more than I actually wound up liking it. Or, more accurately, the parts of the film that I liked, I adored. The parts of the film that didn’t resonate left me checking my watch. It’s uneven as a finished product. Some of the songs are amazing. Some are a little tedious. The cinematography can be gorgeous, but there were scenes that felt visually flat. The choreography was amazing in the big numbers, but some of the little numbers (or songs where it was obvious not every extra was a dancer) felt clumsy. At the end of the day, there were definitely some places in this neighborhood I enjoyed visiting…but there were also places I’d be hard pressed to want to see again.