For some, musicals are one of the most energetic, emotionally bombastic genres in both film and theater. The melding of heavily choreographed dance numbers and story-telling lyrics isn’t a new phenomenon, but every now and then a star among the many musicals available to seems to shine the brightest. For the past few years, this has been Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lin has been around the theater scene for a while, acting as an actor, writer, composer, translator and lyricist on multiple occasions. While he found some success in the late 2000s to early 2010s (which we’ll talk about very soon), he has perhaps seen no greater success than the 2015 historical hip-hopera show Hamilton. Since the success of the show, endless hallways of doors seemed to swing open for Miranda, including various opportunities with Disney in their film Moana and their Star Wars franchise. It would only be a matter of time until Miranda built up enough Hollywood credentials to make his own pursuit to the silver screen, choosing to adapt the musical that brought him his first initial success, his first worldwide sensation, In the Heights.
Plans for a film adaptation of Miranda’s breakout work date all the way back to 2008, right around when the musical began to build global buzz. However, deals fell through and partnerships changed, leaving the film quietly on the chopping block until 2016. By 2018, with director John Chu now attached to direct, the film began to pickup steam before being predictably delayed by COVID-19. Even with the delay, the first trailer for the film had made its way to theaters and the internet, promising emotional performances, grand dance numbers, an absurd number of extras, and Miranda’s signature storytelling and lyrical flow. It quickly became one of summer 2021’s most anticipated movies, setting the stage to become the signature feel-good movie that would bring the public back to theaters with a highly entertaining musical experience that made you feel like you were sitting right on Broadway.
Or you were like me and you watched it on HBO MAX.
To preface, musicals aren’t always my thing. There’s a few I’ve enjoyed in the past, but the idea of having someone sing the story to me never exactly appealed to me. I haven’t seen Hamilton, and I hate to say it, but the global praise the musical received ironically makes me want to see it less. I’m not entirely sure why, but it almost feels like the show has gained so much power and support that there’s no way it could ever live up to the expectations friends and peers have inadvertently placed on it. The small snippets I have seen from the show are…fine. Miranda certainly knows his craft and his attention to historical details are admirable, but his style of overly-lyrical and hyper rhythmic raps get grating to a point. Needless to say, I was skeptical in this film stealing my heart, but after that first trailer, I was admittedly sold on the presentation and was ready for the film to be the theatrically defining moment of the summer.
In the Heights is a blistering whirlwind of energy and spirit, capable of captivating even the most cynical of musical critics at times. Unafraid of its LatinX pride or its overtly theatrical nature, the film takes a whimsical approach to very real topics like gentrification, identity and community. Where the film begins to stumble is its pacing around the halfway point, its exclusion of important plot details from the original play and, well…by being a musical. What I mean by this is your opinion on the film may sway heavily depending on whether or not you even enjoy musicals, regardless of the emotional or narrative content on display. For me, I’m somewhere in the middle. While I found myself electrified by many of the songs, I also found myself checking out during a handful as well. The bright, cheery nature can only enthrall me for so long, and the film unfortunately seems to tire me and itself out as it makes its way to the finale.
Set in the sprawling and struggling sidewalks of Washington Heights, we follow several characters dealing with their own turmoils, whether it be money, relationships or family responsibility. Theres Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a local bodega owner working to save up enough money to return to his birth home in the Dominican Republic and take his cousin and “adoptive” abuela with him. His love interest, Vanessa, is an aspiring fashion designer who also hopes to escape Washington Heights, but the two’s relationship will be tested over their differing futures. Additionally, one of the few residents of the Heights to actually leave and go to school, Nina (Leslie Grace), returns to visit her father and friends, but struggles with the dilemma of leaving her neighborhood and the pressures that rest on her shoulders. All of these individual stories converge into a tale about the hottest summer the Heights has ever seen, as the residents begin to understand the changes happening in their community, culminating in friends and family coming together to make sure their people and their culture isn’t forgotten.
If you’re going to be a musical, there’s an acknowledged understanding that the music must be the defining trait of the film. Audiences aren’t looking to quote the film’s script, but sing along to its songs. For the most part, In the Heights delivers bangers in droves, kicking off the film with the landscape-setting “In the Heights”, smartly introducing us to the lives and dilemmas of not only our main characters, but the people of Washington Heights as a whole. It’s a huge kickoff to the film, shot with what seems like hundreds of actors, only to be usurped by “96,000”. Perhaps the most visually impressive music number in the film, “96,000” dares to ask the question of what we would do with the titular number in dollar form. All our characters get time to show off their singing and rapping ability, framed by a gigantic pool party featuring some of the best dance choreography I’ve seen in a musical film. The film relaxes with quieter, more intimate songs like “Paciencia y Fe” and “Champagne” which don’t exactly hinder the flow of the film but allows us to envelope ourselves in the emotions of one or two characters rather than the neighborhood as a whole. Not every song can be as memorable as these, as some simply feel like filler to take up space in the film where the narrative can no longer do the heavy lifting. Additionally, the autotuning can be painfully obvious in certain songs, particularly ones that aren’t as performative. They are few and far between thankfully, as the soundtrack is something I’m sure nearly every fan can be happy with, unless you also take into account the songs from the original theater production that didn’t make it into the film.
Speaking of the original production, you have to understand going in that of course some changes are going to be made to reduce what is usually a 4 hour play into a barely 2 and a half hour film. This means songs, characters and even full plot points will be cut in order to squeeze the main story into a nearly halved runtime. Now, I hadn’t seen the stage production beforehand so I don’t have nearly as much of an attachment to the removed elements, but I can still see the missteps caused by the omissions. The film does what it can to give all of its main characters ample time to develop and shine, but audiences of the source material may find themselves disappointed with some of the decisions. In giving our protagonists close to equal screentime, some of their stories don’t seem to reach their full potential. Nina’s story, which is lauded by many as the most emotionally impactful parts of the story, loses many of the elements and emotional moments that made her character so compelling. Some of these changes boil down to time or updating for current society, but the void still remains apparent while characters like Vanessa get similar amounts of screentime despite not being as emotionally engaging. Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is another character whose weight and importance to the story feels implied rather than shown. The story of the “backbone” of the neighborhood is virtually non-existent until a fantastic musical number that explains her backstory and her current struggles. While the performance is great, the rushed process to flesh out this character halfway through the film at a very questionable time left me scratching my head.
Because of these changes, the film is left feeling disjointed and messy while the songs try to act as the entertaining glue holding the show together. Many of the film’s themes seem to get lost in the mix as the movie wants to cover so many ideas but can’t seem to keep one central idea down. “96,000” seems to imply the lottery will be a bigger plot point in the film, but when the song finishes we rarely ever hear mention of it. Gentrification of the neighborhood, a serious issue which could have been the forefront of the film, feels sterile and unthreatening. The movie tries to do too much with too little time, something the Broadway show can get away with thanks to its near double run time. Without prior knowledge of the play, these narrative potholes may not be apparent to most. The film at least remains fun and energetic throughout with its performances and musical numbers. If you aren’t a fan of Manuel or musicals in general, I don’t see it winning you over. However, for fans of the genre and the play itself you may find yourself too focused on everything they did right to even notice the film’s shortcomings. It lives up to its intention of being a feel good summer movie despite some narrative missteps thanks to the apparent heart and spirit behind it.
It’s not entirely for me, but it may just be for you.
During the hottest summer Washington Heights has ever seen, there remains one hero willing to brave the elements in order to bring sweet icy treats to the people on the streets; the Piragüero. Played by the man who started it all, Lin Manuel Miranda, the piraguero pushes his cart of ice and syrup through the blistering summer streets, hoping to cool off the residents with a delicious piragua treat.
Piragua is essentially a Puerto Rican snow cone, with the ice typically structured in the shape of a cone (I tried but the sun was remorseless on my ice). As Washington Heights is a melting pots of various cultures, so too is the Mojito Piragua, a combination of a classic Cuban drink with a Puerto Rican body of ice and sugar. Mojitos are an absolute must have for hot, summer days, and now you can enjoy them as an icy, sugary treat!
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2oz white rum
- 1.5 oz lime juice
- 10 mint leaves
- Green food coloring
- Shaved ice (1-2 cups of blended ice)
- Heat water, sugar and mint in a saucepan over medium heat until sugar dissolves.
- Remove from heat and cool.
- Once chilled, remove mint leaves and stir in the lime juice and rum. Tint with green food coloring.
- Place shaved ice in a cup or glass in a cone formation.
- Pour the mixture over the ice.
- Garnish with additional mint leaves.