Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights is a musical with exuberance to spare, but its Disneyfication of Washington Heights will prevent it from communicating with those who don’t love Miranda’s music. The film is set in Washington Heights, a neighbourhood of the uppermost part of New York, and is ostensibly a study of social mobility within its Latinx community, in which we are told everyone has a sueñito– “little dream”.
The story follows an ensemble cast of characters – Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) owns a corner shop and is saving to move back to the Dominican republic, Nina (Leslie Grace) is a student who is adamant she doesn’t want to return to university now she is back home, and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is an aspiring fashion designer. The film is held together by narration from Usnavi who is telling the story to his daughter and her friends years after the main events of the film.
The structure’s execution is a little too fast and loose for my liking. It’s often unclear what exactly we are seeing especially in the scenes Usnavi is not there to witness. Are these scenes meant to be a retelling from second-hand information or are they outside of Usnavi’s narrated story? Naturally, the counter argument is ‘why does this matter?’. The answer is- it doesn’t. But that’s the problem, because it should matter, otherwise it’s just lazy story telling. It’s bad filmmaking to employ a structure which asks the audience to consider the unreliability of what they are seeing and then not do anything with it.
The unconvincing story telling extends to the film’s contrived midpoint. While the main cast are at a party, a blackout hits Washington Heights, leaving the whole neighbourhood without electricity as chaos ensues. In recent memory, this midpoint is reminiscent to Parasite’s (2019) flooding sequence. Both have a similar effect of tearing down any false sense of stability the characters have gained, but in Parasite the flooding is also baked into that film’s social commentary of uncontrollable forces preventing social mobility. Here the blackout is simply a device to inject a new lease of life into interpersonal drama going stale.
Some of the character arcs are resolved a little too tidily
This is not to say the film is devoid of social commentary. With the Washington Heights context there is so much for the film to sink its teeth into. The ensemble cast allows the separate stories to balance each other out – some characters choose to stay and others to leave as the film ultimately becomes a story about finding home. Sadly, some of the character arcs are resolved a little too tidily. It’s not that sweet, optimistic endings are inherently less interesting than a more melancholic direction, just that In the Heights’ ending isn’t fully deserved.
Miranda’s songs are the main driving force for the film – when paired with large scale dance routines on location in Washington Heights, the spectacle can be very impressive. Unfortunately, these scenes are edited too sporadically, so very rarely are you able to take in the scale of these sequences, but still they are undeniably engaging.
Sometimes the songs can feel a little pointless with characters singing basic exposition that is visually apparent or just completely superfluous. Hamilton’s lyrics are similar, but because it’s a stage play and exclusively song the lyrics have to do the heavy lifting of exposition.
All criticisms up to this point are passable – the film’s main issue which limits its success outside Miranda fans is its overly Disneyfied aesthetic. The film’s cinematography is technically perfect; it’s always properly exposed and utilises expensive cranes and rigs for sweeping camera moves. Anamorphic lenses are used to try and give the film some sort of character with their signature elongated bokeh, but frankly these lenses are so overused nowadays that it only adds to the film’s generic corporate aesthetic.
The cinematography alone is not the problem, it’s symptomatic of a production detached from the reality of Washington Heights. This context demands a schema with greater tactility, imperfection and simplicity. This is all surprising given the fact the film was shot in Washington Heights and Miranda himself lives there, but still, this Hollywood adaptation of In the Heights smacks of top-down culture.
Featured image courtesy of simplethrill via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.
In-article images courtesy of @intheheightsmovie via instagram.com. No changes made to these images.
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