Why did In the Heights have to be a musical? I thought it had great messages explored in interesting ways through its characters, but it was the music that held me back from loving this movie. And maybe even from liking it.
Based off the Broadway play of the same name, the film follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), Benny (Corey Hawkins), Nina (Leslie Grace), and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). They’re a group from Washington Heights in Manhattan. It’s a poor, Latin neighborhood, but one where everyone knows each other and are always rooting for each other to succeed. The problem is, no one has much hope that someone from Washington Heights can make their way out of the neighborhood and do something bigger with their life. So when Nina returns after her first semester at Stanford, everyone in the community is eagerly waiting to hear what it’s like, and a lot is riding on her success.
Like any good musical, so much of the dialogue in this film is sung or rapped. It was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, meaning there is lots of word play and lots of rhythm. But that’s exactly what made it too much for me. By the end of the movie, I felt a sort of sensory overload. So much singing, rapping, and dancing combined with the vibrant colors and sprawling story with important themes became a lot for me to latch onto. With so many moving parts, the movie lacked focus, which was both its strength and weakness. I mentioned that it had excellent messaging, but by the end, I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to latch onto the most. The attack on the senses became too much for a movie that was obviously trying to address important issues for an underrepresented group of people.
That being said, I do want to explore some of the themes a bit, because they were there and they were complex. The one that I think landed best was Nina’s entire character arc. When she’s introduced, she’s just returning from college and she treats the audience to a song expressing her doubts about continuing. She’s conflicted because she doesn’t feel like she fits in at college, while she does fit in well in Washington Heights because it’s where she grew up. But now that she’s returning, everyone seems to be looking at her and treating her differently because now she has so many expectations and so much hope following her. She doesn’t want this amount of pressure, but she also recognizes this unique chance that she has to be “successful” as someone from Washington Heights. This is all communicated through the lyrics, choreography, blocking, and direction of one musical number that shows off director John M. Chu’s talents. I won’t spoil how Nina’s story wraps up, but it’s quite satisfying to see how it progresses after such a compelling beginning.
Usnavi, on the other hand, is determined to return home to the Dominican Republic, where he was born and moved away from when he was just eight. His dream is to return to the Dominican, because those were the best days of his life. He currently runs the local bodega, but only does it to save money. When he opens his shop in the Dominican, he says then he’ll be working for what he loves. Much like the story of Nina, Usnavi’s story is compelling from the start and I really did love the way it progressed and ultimately wrapped up.
The film also explores discrimination, financial burden, educational burden, community, and the ability to rise up, though some of these are given just a song and a bit more lip service, instead of a fully fleshed out idea. At certain points, I found myself wishing that there would have been fewer songs and more time devoted to exploring some of these issues, which easily grabbed my attention from the very beginning.
As a white person with admittedly little knowledge of the plight of Latin Americans, In the Heights does a great job of presenting much of the discrimination that is faced in that community. I loved the idea of the story and at the beginning, I was prepared to feel and learn about a situation I know much too little about that isn’t represented enough on screen. I appreciated being exposed to many issues I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered, but I wasn’t able to completely soak it all in. It’s probably a personal thing, but my head was spinning by the end because of the nearly two and a half hours of singing, dancing, and colors. It was just the packaging I couldn’t handle.