Sunday, June 13, 2021

Musical Watch: In the Heights (2021)

Watched:  06/10/2021
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Decade:  2020's
Director:  Jon M. Chu

A few years back, Jamie and I paid our money and saw a local stage production of In the Heights at the Zach Scott Theatre here in town.  It wasn't a touring show, but it was a professional show with a mix of local talent and hired talent from out of town.  The theater in question struggles, I think, because the audience is on the gray and silver side, and bringing in shows with a hip-hop tinge, or something like Hedwig (which we also saw there) seem to throw off the audiences that still pat themselves on the back for coming in for the Janis Joplin show they do there about three years.  

But the show was solid, not least because the actual source material is what it is.  In the Heights was the work that made Lin Manuel Miranda in the musical theatre world and enabled him to do something as ambitious as Hamilton.  And, I don't think I need to tell you a ton about where that carried him.  

The movie of In the Heights (2021) was supposed to be released summer of 2020, I believe, but was shelved until this summer, and is now enjoying both a theatrical release and a release on HBOmax.  

Look, we're in a bit of a slump of Lin Manuel Miranda fatigue as there's been so much of him as he has his moment, and he was very, very online for a bit there.  It's going to feel right at this time, as he's now "the establishment" to take swipes at him.  And, sure, do what you have to.  But do it in context.  LMM is an Hispanic guy who brought working-class stories and hip-hop to Broadway and somehow it didn't feel like a Six Flags stage show after a producer got their hands on it.  And became a household name from Broadway along the way - something that someone manages in our multi-media saturated age pretty much not at all.  

Flat out, yes, I enjoyed the movie.  It's intentionally a small, sweet story about a single week on a block in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, and the loves and lives of a few of the residents.  Their hopes and dreams, etc...  In a lot of ways, it's positively mid-20th century in structure for a musical.  But, really, it's a celebration of a people who are often invisible or ignored.  Despite US demographics, American media largely ignores the Latinx communities, white washes them, or spends the 80-00's casting Latinx talent in roles as criminals and domestics.  

I'll argue that Jon M. Chu's direction, Christopher Scott's remarkable choreography and the spot-on cinematography of Alice Brooks - which both utilizes modern lenses and camera movement, as well as occasionally harkening to the work of her forebears - are mind-boggling.  The cumulative effect created the second movie I've wished I'd caught on the big screen since COVID started (the other being Kong v Godzilla, to give you the idea of the scope of the spectacle).  Every exterior scene feels lived in, is perfectly choreographed, and feels utterly part of the world that's the thesis of the movie: that the streets were made out of music.  

Yeah, I've seen the takes that In the Heights is  *cheesy*, but it's an earnest cheese.  There's nothing new about stories of young people falling in love, finding purpose, discovering their futures, etc...  So you're going to need to worry about the execution and surrounding context.  From gigantic, elaborate dance sequences that must have taken forever to shoot (the pool scene), to intimate moments, everyone works to earn what the film wants you to do, and that's care about these characters enough that you can care about their world, and, by extension, the people who make up that world.  Asking folks in flyover states - who may have never heard of the neighborhood, whose trips to NYC will be curated portions of Manhattan focused on Broadway shows and a trip to Liberty Island - to embrace dialog, singing and rap that melds English with beats in Spanish.  To ask them to care about ordinary people living ordinary lives and seeing them as extraordinary and succeeding is a magic trick.  And I'd argue the movie pulls it off and then some.

But, as in all things, YMMV.

As has always happened with stage-to-film, the movie has made changes to what you may have seen on stage.  Example: the film is not locked into the set that's the street outside Usnavi's bodega.  Or the laws of physics.  But it also essentially changes one of the main character's motivations entirely, I think in an attempt to meet a cultural moment in a few ways.

Essentially the film follows roughly a week in a neighborhood in the Washington Heights area of NYC as it edges toward gentrification (which I don't recall being a focus of the stage show), which creeps in around the edges as longtime residents wonder how or if they can still fit in.  And - the one who made it out on her own academic merit - isn't sure she should have ever left, choosing not to return to Stanford in the Fall.  Our POV character, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos of Hamilton fame), plans to close the bodega his parents once ran.  He plans to return to his native Dominican Republic - except for the magnet-like draw of Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), herself wanting to move to hipper areas of NYC as a fashion designer.

Other faces include Jimmy Smits as the first-generation-do-anything-for-my-kids immigrant who got his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace) to Stanford.  Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, Dascha Palanco, Stephanie Beatriz and Daphne Rubin-Vega as the salon ladies, Corey Hawkins as Benny - Nina's beau, and - in a super weird "is that who I think it is?" appearance, Marc Anthony as an alcoholic cousin.  There's dozens more, but you have IMDB.  But stay through the credits to catch LMM and Chris Jackson's final square-off.

Certainly the play is a love letter to a place and a people, and one that - with the film - had to be updated to reflect the changing face of America and Washington Heights itself.  I would think the stories are both universal and specific enough, and the strength of both performances and the music powerful enough to win folks over.  But I also can't make anyone like a musical who's disinclined to do so.  And for people embarrassed of sentiment, sincerity in song, etc... look, this is going to be a hard sell, and is maybe not the movie for you.

It was one for me.  Written by the original co-creator of In the Heights, Quiera Alegria Hudes, what I liked about the local-production version of the stage-play was turned up to 11, and I can't really think of much after the first viewing where I thought they'd mis-stepped, including in the changes to the characters, accounting for this decade's issues.  The talent is all up there on screen, and we'd be so lucky to get a musical like this every two or three years, and one that will make you appreciate a place you've never been is one of those "maybe every five years" things.

Plus it's got Stephanie Beatriz, so how bad can it be?

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