In the Heights

In the Heights ★★★★

I had the lovely opportunity to see this early on Mother’s Day last month, then watched it several times at home on HBO Max, and finally saw it again in Dolby Atmos last night while I’m in Seattle for the week. I’ll say this much: if you watched Avengers: Endgame at home on your laptop instead of experiencing it at the theater on opening weekend, you saw an entirely different movie. The same idea applies here...and not for some vague “movie magic” reasons, but because it’s so clearly a film that embraces the big-scale spectacle, vivid sound and color, and grand performance art of seeing hundreds of extras all dancing together in the same frame that it demands a theater. After a year of being segmented in our Zoom boxes, there’s something wildly cathartic about being in a crowded room watching a crowd of people dancing in the street.

I never had the chance to see In The Heights on Broadway, but over the years I’ve watched the leaked cam of the original cast dozens of times, seen every student production available on YouTube, watched the reunion concert on a loop, and had the album on CD autoplaying every time I start my car. Needless to say, I love this show, and the bar was high. Both Hamilton and In The Heights are so often (understandably) used as gateways to political discussion and debate, but the reason I love them both is much simpler than any of that: I think they’re both great stories and they have moved me more than a good amount of anything I’ve ever watched. I vividly remember the summer when I experienced Hamilton and Heights for the first time, and I specifically remember feeling so incredibly seen by the way LMM writes about significance, time, and home - three things that I’ve wrestled with a lot over the years. Hamilton reminded me that my desire for big-scale significance could easily become an idol if it was motivated by an arrogant need for a legacy. It also reminded me that people - all people - are always more than the best and worst things they’ve ever done, and historical figures (often viewed as tidy stone statues) were just as flawed and messy and human as anyone else. In The Heights validated my love of place, and showed me that making change around you can come from being faithful and present where you are, not imagining that you have to escape to another world to make a difference. The characters of Abuela and Usnavi testified to me the idea that “legacy” does not have to change the world; it can be as simple as sharing an old recipe to save the day, or listening and knowing the stories of the people around you even when they’re gone.

Broadway film adaptions always fascinate me because there are a whole range of subtle changes required to take something from stage to screen; characters who could shout to each other from one side of the stage to the other are now unable to do so because their locations are farther away in a film world; songs that were performed in the “empty black void” of the theater are now grounded in a real tangible space with new meaning; characters are often given more “actions” to perform while they sing rather than standing in one spot and belting out the notes. It’s an interesting process, and I’ve seen it done well and done poorly, though most often done poorly. Obviously, I was disappointed by several of the songs cut from the original show here (RIP Inutil and Sunrise especially) but many of the omissions make relative sense, especially with the film already bordering on 2.5 hours. The changes I was less thrilled about come primarily on a plot level; if you’ve seen the show, you know everything involving the lottery ticket and Abuela Claudia was rearranged, and I don’t think this change was for the better; it makes Carnival Del Barrio feel surprisingly dissonant in a low moment of the story, and creating a way from Usnavi to get to DR without the lotto ticket ultimately makes the reveal with the money feel a little underwhelming because he was leaving anyway. I can’t really put my finger on why any of these changes were made, except that perhaps they help work the added “Sonny as an illegal immigrant” subplot into the narrative. I liked that addition, but I’m not sure it was worth it.

Despite the plot-related changes that I wasn’t particularly happy about, I think the victory of In The Heights as a film is that it captures the spirit of the show with vivid and flying colors. The b-roll of the barrio (and the focus on the entire neighborhood of “background dancers” rather than just Usnavi) makes the whole thing feel lively and authentic, with the city as a character rather than a backdrop. Jon Chu’s direction is hindered slightly by a sense of frantic editing that too often cuts away from the singer’s performances, but the blocking is tremendously fun and the overall feel of the musical numbers is exuberant and energetic. There are a myriad of very clever workarounds used to embed the songs in new places, and some (like putting 96,000 in a swimming pool) are brimming with creativity. In general, there’s a broad sense of playfulness and “breaking the rules” here that keeps everything feeling fresh because you never know what might happen; characters draw their dreams in mid-air, rolls of fabric unfurl from the sky, a couple dances on the side of a building, mannequin heads on the shelf look around and laugh together, a character chases a young version of herself through the city. The brilliance of these moments is that they’re not meant to co-exist or create a grounded vision of “what’s really happening” in the real world - they all simply work to express the unique inner-world of their characters in each particular moment.

Some of the best stuff, too, comes from Chu’s direction of the smaller and more intimate scenes between two characters; the dynamic between Benny and Nina during Benny’s Dispatch is so fun, and the one-shot argument between Usnavi and Vanessa during Champagne provides refreshingly small-scale melancholy after the spectacle of Carnival. In terms of the spectacle, it’s been a while since I’ve seen anything as impressive as the large-scale choreography in the opening number, Carnival, and 96,000; there’s a sense of tangible realness to this cast that just feels so cathartic and straight-up jaw-dropping to behold. The shot of the dancers in the reflection of Usnavi’s window? Cinema.

I’m bad at ending reviews, but I’m really glad we’ve finally got a recent film adaption of a Broadway show that at least solidly understands what the original show is about and what makes it work - and though some of the creative liberties aren’t for the better, I’m happy that it takes creative liberties in the first place. Movie theaters are back, baby!

Houston liked these reviews