“In the Heights”
(Rated T/ PG-13)
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smits
Where to watch: In theaters/ HBO Max
I was worried!
I have a love/hate relationship with musicals, especially many of those made in the last three decades.
The charm exuded by some (not all) musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age is often largely lost on musicals in a modern setting. Plus, in general, characters breaking out into song out of nowhere, with everyone around them knowing that song, and dancing about in the middle of the day at work, or in prison, or on the way to a battle field in the middle of a war, is just so bizarre to me.
Yes, there’ve been some great exceptions in the past few years. Some of Disney’s animated musicals stand out, along with the most recent film versions of “Chicago”, “Moulin Rouge”, and even “Les Misérables”. But the list of the exceptionally cheesy, annoying and unwatchable musicals is long, and includes the theatrical disasters like “Rent” and the excruciatingly painful “The Phantom of the Opera”.
So, I was rightfully worried the film version of the highly successful stage musical, “In the Heights”, would suck to high heaven. The initial trailers and previews all but confirmed this to be another cheese festival; they are filled with hundreds of choreographed dancers in the street, and synchronized swimmers in pools! What?
And there are few things more ridiculous than those musicals in which the performers sing through every single line of dialogue, opera style. Indeed, “In the Heights” starts off doing just that, leaving me all set to count the minutes to the end of my nightmare.
Thankfully, that was just the prologue before the title sequence appears, and actual dialogue and movement not involving dancing does take place, allowing “In the Heights” to settle into a surprisingly great and enjoyable picture.
Based on the 2008 Broadway stage play of the same name, “In the Heights” started Lin-Manuel Miranda on his meteoric rise to success toward his epic “Hamilton: An American Musical” – one of the most successful musicals in theater history – seven years later.
Miranda – who wrote the music and lyrics for “In the Heights”, and starred in the original Broadway production – innovatively incorporated hip hop and other Latin musical themes, in what would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. Miranda makes some cameo appearances in the film, along with some other members of the original production.
Directed by John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), the film, like the stage version, is set in Washington Heights, New York City. 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 who hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.
Broadway star Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, the bodega owner, and heads a talented cast full of fantastic performances. Whether acting or singing or rapping or dancing, what we see and hear is top notch.
Some of the music and songs are catchy, and the production is overflowing with energy and vibrancy. Those same aforementioned dancing in the street and choreographed pool numbers that appeared goofy in trailers are really quite impressively spellbinding in their scale and magnitude.
“In the Heights” will have you smiling ear to ear, except during its often-poignant moments, when it may bring a tear to your eye, especially for people in the West Indian diaspora.
Unfortunately, this little gem of a musical has had a disappointing time at the box office since opening last week. The numbers in theaters have been about half what was initially projected, and the streaming numbers on HBO Max haven’t been all that impressive either.
Hopefully word will spread quick that there’s little to be worried about “In the Heights”.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff.