I can count on one hand the number of Broadway shows I’ve seen live. I respect musicals as an art form, but I’m not a big fan. As a film critic who watches at least 100 titles each year, this means I have seen countless movies that are based on musicals without having much familiarity with the source material. It could be argued this puts me at a disadvantage when considering the merits of an adaptation, but I would disagree.
I suspect I was among many millions who saw “Hamilton” for the first time in its filmed version. And I refuse to believe my genuine enjoyment of it was any less pure for having chosen to avoid the hunger game of catching it live in New York during its peak. While the movie version of “Hamilton” is simply a beautifully captured and edited live performance, “In the Heights” is a fully cinematic realization of the show.
Lin-Manuel Miranda premiered the original work in 2005 and won a few Tony’s with it three years later. As a musical and a movie, the interconnected stories of “In the Heights all center on the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, and the multiple Spanish-speaking cultures that make up so many of its residents. Twin themes of home and family run through every sung word of this nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie journey which, from what I’ve read, follows the stage version closely. The one notable exception to this fidelity is the inclusion of references to contemporary issues like DACA immigration policy, which were almost certainly added to bring the script more fully into this decade. These are meaningful, if occasionally clunky, adjustments and I appreciate the intent behind them.
The best reason to do a big screen adaptation of a show, however, is that you can do things with the visual elements that are impossible in a live setting. “In the Heights” makes very good use of this potential by pumping up the dance numbers with expansive outdoor settings and huge crowds. The vibrant color palette is stunning throughout and the incredibly fun pool scene during the song “96,000” is a perfect case in point.
The other end of the scale matters just as much. Film directors can take advantage of cameras in ways a stage director can only dream of. The intimacy of “In the Heights’” second act tragedy, for example, would have been half as wrenching without the dark, close perspective. Ultimately, though, the extent to which “In the Heights” succeeds in any form depends on the quality of the music. The songs are, of course, very good. I mean, we’re talking about Lin-Manuel Miranda here. But, as a late-comer fan of “Hamilton,” I must admit I found the totality of “In the Heights” a little old fashioned by comparison.
This show feels like an artifact to me. An early glimpse at a genius to be, perhaps, but only if viewed from today, after his ascension. The cast is very strong, and Anthony Ramos shines in the lead role. I only wish the characters were as complex as they are likeable, and their stories were as deep as they are heartfelt. I wanted another dimension.
I know I’m talking about a musical, a kind of art that admittedly baffles me sometimes. It’s an in-your-face medium that often makes you eat dessert for dinner and “In the Heights” is a little guilty of that. It’s also infectious, gorgeous to look at and so very sincere in its humanity. Go see it—and smile for the rest of day.