In The Heights (2021)

Quick Synopsis: A musical about the lives of people living in Washington Heights, a neighbourhood in Manhattan.

I haven’t seen that many musicals. Usually when I do they’re either heavily gimmicked (Repo: A Genetic Opera, for example), or a jukebox musical (Rocketman). I think the last straight-out musical I watched at the cinema was La La Land back in 2016. It’s not that I actively avoid them, it’s just they’re not released that often. When they are they’re usually aimed specifically at a young teen audience, and I can’t really go to see those at a cinema without being put on a list.

It’s a shame as musicals can be really fun to watch. I like a film with a good soundtrack, it’s a good way for a film to stay in your memory once you leave the cinema. So a film with an original soundtrack that stays in your head for a long time is a film that’s likely to end up on my positive side. The quality of the music in this one ensured it will be in my good graces for a long time. The songs are insanely catchy, well-written, and wonderfully performed. Usually in a musical you end up with at least one weak link (Russell Crowe in Les Mis), one person who has a singing voice that isn’t up the standard required (Russell Crowe in Les Mis), who are so untalented that it makes you wonder how they got it. But everyone in this gives great performances, with fantastic harmonies and incredibly clear enunciation (which for a musical dependent on the songs to advance the plot, is something you kind of need).

The downsides of musicals is that it can be difficult to stay fully immersed, it can be hard to watch people singing about doing something, and NOT think “then shut up and just do it. You’re singing about your hidden plans, how are people not seeing that? You’re shining a spotlight on yourself for fucks sake, how are people not seeing that?”. It takes a good musical to make you forget that. This does that. It entraps you from the opening number (at least I’m assuming it’s the opening number, I stepped in the cinema about 20 seconds late). The universe the film creates is one where people randomly singing makes sense. It’s one where everything has a certain flow to it which suits this genre.

The performances? Really good. Almost all of the performers in here are new to me (with one notable exception). I mean, I KNOW I’ve seen some of them in things before, but this is the first time they’ve all stood out. It seems like most of the cast are from musicals, which is a much better way of doing it than going for people from a film background. The casting choices are all fantastic, to me anyway. There has been some criticism for the lack of Afro-Latino actors, cutting out a large demographic of the actual Washington Heights. I’m not sure whether that will effect it internationally, but it does look like it could effect it in the US.

I have no idea about the demographics of the area, so it didn’t really make a difference to my enjoyment of the film. And I did enjoy it. I saw this film just before seeing Supernova, a film about someone coming down with early-onset dementia, and one that really hit home hard. I should have had that on my mind for the walk home, but all I could think about was this. The way this film made me feel outlasted the sad aura of Supernova.

A lot of the trailers (Well, the one trailer I saw a lot) focused heavily on the Lin-Manuel Miranda, which makes sense as Hamilton was huge and he did the music for both. I must confess, I still haven’t seen Hamilton (this is the closest I’ve got), so I don’t know the similarities in musical style, but this has made me want to watch Hamilton even more. I feel the work of Jon M. Chu deserves praise too. His part in the publicity was “the director of Crazy Rich Asians”, which, to be honest, didn’t really mean anything to me. I’ve looked at his filmography, and it seems like this was the film his career has been building to. The colour of Crazy Rich Asians, obviously. But also the playfulness and creative set-pieces from Now You See Me 2, the large scale scenes which require multiple moving parts from G.I Joe, and the knowledge of how to shoot dancing scenes from Step Up and the Justin Bieber movie. His next project is the film adaptation of Wicked, which could be good, but it does make me worry that he will be known as “musical guy” when I’d be interested in see him try new and weird things. He was lined up to do a live action adaptation of Lilo And Stitch, but sadly he’s left those duties. That’s a shame as a live-action Disney film is something I feel he could do very well. Something else I think he’d do well: Goosebumps. Not even specifically that franchise, but that kind of film, a horror movie aimed at kids. He directs in a way that is visually striking, with all the pieces flowing together beautifully. It’s almost the cinematic equivalent of an ocean with the expansive nature and glistening look. Yup, that’s a weird way of describing it, but it’s the best way I can think of it. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that can best be described as “a holiday in Spain” with how it made me feel. It reminds me very much of those holidays when I was younger. The sense of wonder, the warmth, and the feeling of being invited into a world completely different from your own. It made me feel nostalgic for things that never happened to me.

Now onto the negative. The narrative is a bit weak. It tries to do so much but doesn’t have the length to do them all justice. Certain plot points don’t seem to have been followed, and certain things which should be important don’t seem to have the effect they do. There are a few songs which possibly could have been cut. There’s one near the end which I wouldn’t say needs cutting as it leads to an emotional moment where a character dies, so the song itself is needed. But that being said, it could stand to lose a verse or two. Some of the songs go on for what feels unnaturally long, and for those moments the film seems to stand still. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s not like every song is like that. It’s just one or two moments where songs could have been cut down a bit.

Overall, a fantastic film and one I know I need to see again .

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