There was much debate at LMO Towers this weekend when it was realised that the new Lin Manuel Miranda musical In The Heights was about to debut on HBO Max. The new musical from the Hamilton guy? Somebody should review that! However, Stark was washing his hair, Macleod was watching football and everyone else we called refused to pick up after they heard we were looking for a reviewer for this.
What we needed is somebody with a particular kind of insanity, somebody who keeps uncommon hours. Luckily for us, there is one among us who loves a musical. Long-time Outposter, contributor, and woman who views what mortal man refuses to watch – Knitting Knerd. Here is her review.
In The Heights
In The Heights dropped on HBO max this weekend, which meant some musical-obsessed nerd sat down like a preschooler watching Saturday morning cartoons, eager anticipation in her eyes on a Friday morning after working all night.
A brief history of this musical:
- Lin Manuel Miranda wrote and starred in this thing on Broadway. It’s based on the book by Quiara Alegría Hudes.
- In The Heights” first hit stages in 2005.
- This is the first piece of Miranda’s work that has gotten a big Hollywood adaptation. (Hamilton doesn’t count because it was a filmed Broadway production).
- Jon M. Chu directed this movie.
The story starts with a man telling children on the beach about a small community in New York City called Washington Heights. It is changing because of gentrification and a pocket community is disappearing. This man is telling the children the importance of this community and the people in it.
We meet Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and the people in his life. Usnavi is from the Dominican Republic. His “suenito,” little dream, is to move out of the US and back to the Dominican Republic so he can have a small shop just like his father did on the beach. Until he has enough money to do that he and his cousin/nephew own and run a bodega that the community loves.
Usnavi is the narrator here. He tells us everyone has a suenito in Washington Heights, and they’re all working on achieving their dreams, and how the gentrification of the area is pushing people out of their community and changing their dreams.
The cast is pretty damn sprawling and we learn about the salon girls, the owner of a taxi company who sells parts of his business so his daughter can go to Stanford, and about his daughter Nina who struggles with being a Latino woman in a prestigious college. Young dreamers, local graffiti artists, a spinster woman who is the community grandmother, We learn about them all and their stories, their suenitos.
And this is where my issues with this movie started.
This list here, on the shirt, are just some of the many characters in the movie that the film expects you to not only know, but care about.
The whole plot is Usnavi getting the money together so he can have his big suenito, only to discover that everything he wants is in the Heights. We realize the man on the beach is an old Usnavi, and the beach? He set up a part of his bodega to look like a beach in the Dominican Republic. He’s telling his story to his children, telling the children how important this area is, and that these people are important to the area.
Certain shots of this movie are beautiful. There’s a shot in the community pool with the floaty tubes that look like something out of an old-school Hollywood musical.
But for everyone shot like the one above, it feels like there are other shots that are thrown away, and yes I am taking aim at Miranda’s Hamilton line here. Some parts of this movie are gorgeous, and sumptuous, with beautiful lighting and choreography. Other parts are hard to watch.
There is a performance for the song When You’re Home that features two lovers, reconciled and magically in love, so they are dancing on the fire escape when suddenly they can dance on the sides of buildings. Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace are lovely here, their choreography is great. But the CGI was such a mess that instead of a dreamy ballad, the bad CGI makes it almost unwatchable.
I blame a lot of the flaws of this movie on Chu and his direction. Chu can be decent, but he also directed the modern adaptation of Jem and the Holograms which was so bad. The way he directed this, spooks me because he’s supposedly directing the adaptation of Wicked.
This also features Miranda’s style of rapping with some longer notes scattered here and there. If Hamilton bugged you, and it bugged me the first time I watched it, this will bug you as it has the same fast-paced rapping put into a musical format. It makes me question if Miranda only has one mode, and he can’t expand?
The cast is sprawling and huge. To me, the standouts were Corey Hawkins as Benny, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela (I’m such a fan of hers), and Olga Merediz as Abuela. Merediz has a great song but when you watch it you will realize there is only one possible reason to have such a song placed where it is. You will know when you see it.
Anthony Ramos is good as Usnavi, he’s charming and can sing, but the whole movie was anchored around him. To me his story wasn’t a compelling story. So occasionally I wanted to tell Usnavi to go away.
Jimmy Smits, who was a long-time fan of the stage show, is good but I don’t know about his singing voice. Miranda, who played Usnavi on Broadway, is playing Piragüero here. He has a rivalry with the local ice cream truck guy played by Chris Jackson who has been in all of Miranda’s work. He was even in Moana playing the chief as Miranda did the music in Moana. I like Jackson as an actor, he played Benny on Broadway, so it was nice to see him in this.
My biggest issue with the movie is the cast of characters. It, and the community, are so big and sprawling. I usually love stories like that as long as we get invested in them… This movie only resolves Usnavi’s story. We see him and his life after the events. The format is very much like Do the Right Thing and Empire Records, but then the movie completely drops the ball in the last act.
I was legitimately mad at the end of the movie because we got no resolution to all but 2 of the characters’ stories. We know that Usnavi and his love interest lived happily ever after and had a kid. However, there were still a dozen or so named characters that got zero resolution. Did Nina finish college? Did she change the world? Where did Benny go? What happened to Sonny? To his dad? The salon girls? Did gentrification take out the Heights? We have no clue! Because it ends with a fire hydrant spraying the community on a hot summer day. I watched the credits thinking there’d be an end credit scene. Nope!
Also a good quarter of this movie, maybe more, is in Spanish with a lot of slang. I could see how that could be frustrating.
Should you watch it? With the abundance of things on streaming services, unless you had a hardcore interest in watching a mediocre musical with bad directing, skip it.
The music in this movie won’t stick with me, which is disappointing. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is a great time for others. But this movie had more negatives than positives for me.