Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony Awards, brilliant songs, forget all of that! Most important thing about this movie is the director, John M. Chu. Who previously directed Step Up 2: The Streets, AND Step Up 3D!!!! Finally, someone hired because they know how to make dance movies, not because they are a big name director.
Since the 1960s, the American movie musical has been on two tracks. On the one hand, there are the occasional Prestige movies like Cabaret or Chicago or Rent or La La Land. The ones that get big name directors doing big name things and are nominated for Oscars and have think pieces written about the Classic American Musical. And on the other hand, there are the movies that just have fun with music and people watch them and no one talks about them. Beach Party movies, Beatles movies, Elvis movies, Flashdance, Footloose, and then in the 2000s, the Step Up films. They aren’t in the grand tradition of the Classic American Musical, because music on film has moved forward since then. They use editing, slow motion, a mixture of dance genres, and a mixture of song genres. Often they don’t have “songs” at all, just hot instrumental mixes keeping things moving.
What makes In the Heights so special, to me, is that it uses the new modern dance on film techniques combined with an old-fashioned Broadway musical sort of story. The strugglers and dreamers in New York city coming together in song goes all the way back to the Broadway Melody films, or West Side Story. And the idea of showing a community of people interacting is a classic Broadway show style from Oklahoma to State Fair to Rent. When you are designing a Broadway show, you are working within limitations that FORCE you towards this kind of narrative. You can’t have a large cast, you have to have the same people and characters constantly mixing. And you can’t just focus on the central characters because people get tired. Your leads, they need to rest in between songs and dances and whatever. So you need second leads and third leads and comic relief and the talent spread out and the limelight shared all around.
(Chita Rivera in West Side Story, that wasn’t the lead. But she got some great songs and was the break out star)
Most Broadway-to-film adaptations seriously cut down on the time given to the b-plot. Those songs are either cut or re-assigned. Whole storylines go away. Part of this is because a standard Broadway show is 3 hours while a standard American film is only 2 hours. Or just 90 minutes in the early years. But in this case, every song and every character still has a moment to shine. That’s important because this is the story of a community. If you cut the big number for the owner of the hair salon, then you lose the feeling that her character matters, even though she isn’t part of the central romance or central conflict, she is still there and she still has a Voice.
This is a movie where everyone involved was dedicated to keep the spirit of the original work of art, while translating it to film images. It is about a community, it is about people pulling together and the interwoven web of life, it is about everyone having their own story and their own way to shine, and it is about showing that through classic Broadway style songs presented in an exciting filmic way.
The lyrics name check Cole Porter and “Take the A Train” from Duke Ellington right in the first few minutes. This is a show that isn’t seeking to “reinvent” the musical, but rather to bring it forward, giving homage to the people before who created this complex light tripping lyrics, and these stories of the magic of New York. And the visuals for the song numbers as the film goes on call back to everything from Esther Williams to Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. The movie takes over 2 hours, because that’s how long it takes to tell this kind of a story. The cast is made up of singers and dancers, singing and dancing for themselves, because the story requires talent more than Big Names. It is the best of Broadway combined with the best of Film to tell one big vibrant beautiful story.
(seriously, if you like dance on film, you’ve gotta watch the Step Up series. Dumb dumb plots, bad bad acting, fantastic dance sequences that you could only do in a movie)
This is the No Spoilers review, so I can’t get into details of that story. But what is important about it is that it is the story of a specific community, a community that is usually overlooked. Every single main character is a Dreamer. That is, someone who was born in another country and brought to America as a child. This is a community that America does not know what to do with, and that struggles with their own specific identity crisis within themselves. It’s not the same as being born in America, not just not legally the same, but you have memories of another place, the magic of early childhood somewhere else. As an adult, do you dream of recapturing that early childhood moment, of returning to the home you were taken from without your wishes? Or do you stay in this new place where your parents brought you? You are living a life between worlds, where is home?
I looked up the summary of the original stage play from 2007, and there are several small but significant changes to the story. To me, those changes are what help to make the film timeless while the play was very much Of Its Time. There are no riots in the film, no looting, no big moments. It is all internal moments, what does it mean to have a home? What does it mean to make choices for yourself and your family? What is a family? You start with that, with this home and family made up of people washed onto the shores of the city, and then you add music and lyrics and dance and you can have something great. This film is Great.