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‘In the Heights’ insists you have a good time and will not be denied

In the Heights is irrepressible. This movie version of Lin Manuel Miranda’s first hit musical practically insists you have a good time. It will not be denied. Its strategy is to come after you in waves, to wear down your resistance with one elaborate song and dance number after another. And it turns out it’s a winning strategy. This is a great-great movie of what I’d always considered a so-so musical.

To give credit where credit is due, Miranda’s stage musical was the first Tony-Award winning show to incorporate significant chunks of hip-hop and rap into its kaleidoscope of musical styles. And its cultural significance for the Latinx community is undeniable. A Broadway musical set entirely within the confines of a Latino neighborhood in New York City, and cast almost entirely with members of the Latin American diaspora was truly daring.

But at its core, In the Heights is very conventional. The plot revolves around two young couples in love, each of them grappling with the joys and heartbreaks of growing up amidst the ever-changing world around them. Pretty standard musical fodder, right? Throw in a number of major dance sequences and you have the basis for a good old-fashioned musical, albeit in a refreshing new setting: Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights.

The stage show’s inevitable happy ending seems more preordained than earned, but hey, what do you want from a musical? Theatergoers went home smiling, maybe even snapping their fingers.

I get the impression that wasn’t good enough for film director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians). My hunch is he wants us to leave the movie theatre not just smiling but grinning ear to ear, not just snapping our fingers but dancing in the streets. Chu chooses to go big with Miranda’s material and he wants a big reaction. He doesn’t so much improve on the show’s weaknesses (plot, characterization) as overwhelm them with the show’s strengths (singing, dancing). And he’s aided immensely by a gorgeously talented cast of performers, led by Anthony Ramos (Hamilton) playing the part Miranda originally wrote for himself.

Movie versions of Broadway musicals can be tricky. The artifice of most musicals often clashes with the more naturalistic (realistic?) tendencies of film. Somebody suddenly bursting into song seems more appropriate on a stage than a city street, for instance. Chu confronts this dilemma head on. First, he decides to film on the actual streets of the actual neighborhood of Washington Heights. And secondly, he then doubles down on the very artificiality of musicals with some of the giddiest set-pieces imaginable.

The movie starts with a snappy opening song called “In the Heights,” in which our lead character Usnavi, a young struggling bodega owner, raps about his neighborhood. It’s an 8-minute song that succinctly introduces most of the main characters as they enter his shop and sing their greetings. The song ends with a big choral crescendo and it’s at this point that the film seems to announce this is a MOVIE musical. The camera moves from inside the bodega to outside in the streets, and rather than the 15 people or so we’d see singing and dancing on the Broadway stage, we see at least a hundred people a couple of blocks deep all dancing exuberantly in unison. Chu has made his intentions clear: He’s going for broke. There’s no holding back.

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Perhaps the most outrageous and exhilarating musical number, and definitely the splashiest, is “96,000,” in which all the main characters dream about what they would do if they won the $96,000 lottery prize. For no good reason other than to be showy, Chu sets the song in an actual huge Washington Heights community pool (Highbridge Pool). This allows him to recreate an old-Hollywood homage to Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams with 150 swimming dancers performing perfectly choreographed geometric patterns in the pool. This is flamboyantly (and buoyantly) over the top, and the movie revels in it.

Not all of the other 15 songs are so excessively staged (imagine how exhausting that would be!) but the choreography of many of them is quite complex and intricate, including the beauty parlor gossip session “No Me Diga,” and the uplifting “Carnaval Del Barrio.” Others are powerful and moving, especially “Pacienca Y Fe,” which recounts an aging Abuela’s long difficult life as a Cuban immigrant.

And Chu saves the most visually arresting number for almost the last. “When the Sun Goes Down” is a sweet love song about departing, but it has added impact in this movie version because of an unexpected trick of cinematography. That’s all I’m going to say because what makes the scene work is its very unexpectedness. The stunt perfectly embodies how the characters are feeling, yes, but it also serves as a kind of final declaration that this is indeed a MOVIE musical.

In the Heights deserves to be seen on the big screen. It’s available on HBO Max, but I recommend you see it in a theater.

Listen to the Tom and Curley Show weekday afternoons from 3 – 7 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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