As and when the world finally emerges from the pandemic, we may find ourselves in a new golden age for American screen musicals, as audiences who endured the Depression and World War II did before us. By the end of this year, we'll hopefully have witnessed Steven Spielberg's Covid-delayed West Side Story rejig, and if Spielberg - with his lightning-rod instincts for the desires of the common cinemagoer - has sensed the time is right to revisit the musical form, then something's definitely in the air. (A need for escapism, perhaps; for movement and communal joy.) In the meantime, we have In the Heights, which is Hollywood investing in the Lin-Manuel Miranda back catalogue in the wake of Hamilton's blockbusting stage success. (Movie string theory posits there is a reality in which the pandemic was a short blip or never happened, allowing last year's film of Hamilton to play in cinemas and razzle-dazzle its way to multiple Academy Awards.) The new film is notable for two apparent shortcomings, neither of which necessarily counts against it. Firstly, the near-complete absence of anything like a conventional dramatic core - or, more precisely, how Miranda (and Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the original book and adapts here) swapped out monolithic story for something more polyphonic: a series of sketches and postcards from the streets of latter-day Washington Heights in uptown New York.
Miranda's multi-ethnic leads are presented with minor obstacles they have to sing and dance around, like the traffic snarl-ups reported by hunky cab dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins). For boyish bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, veteran of Hamilton and Netflix's She's Gotta Have It), it's the inability to voice his affections for regular customer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera); for Vanessa, it's the credit checks standing between her and her preferred fashion major. Also navigating collegial woes - and this is very much a movie for kids who've grown up on Glee and are now wondering what comes next - is a coltish belle named Nina (Leslie Grace), who's been feeling out of place at Stamford, and has returned home so as to figure out where to go from here. (Even this hardly feels like life-or-death, given that she has a rocksolid Jimmy Smits on hand as Latin America's most supportive dad.) Nobody's gentrifying the area or threatening to shut down the youth club; there aren't enough Caucasians, let alone white supremacists, present to ignite a race war, which is why critical comparisons to Do the Right Thing feel more than a little offbeam. The centering of Usnavi's bodega and an adjacent beauty salon actually gives In the Heights the feel of a PG-rated variant of Kevin Smith's Clerks, or the Wayne Wang-Paul Auster collaboration Blue in the Face: it's happy just to hang out and hear these characters out, the better to point them in the right direction come the inevitable second half.
The other so-called shortcoming relates to In the Heights' standing as less a story than a love song to a place and its people. Miranda has a curious knack for writing songs that are highly dynamic and/or pleasant to listen to in the moment, but impossible to recall on the long walk back to the bus stop. They're like Alka-Seltzers: they go plink-plink-fizz, generate wonderful sounds and spectacle, and when you go back to them an hour later, there's next to nothing there. (I loved Hamilton, but I'll be darned if I could tell you what any given number was called, let alone quote their lyrics or hum the melody.) I think that's in some part because he writes songs not as showstopping setpieces, rather as ongoing conversations between characters, part of (in this instance) the ebb-and-flow of Washington Heights streetlife. They're exposition, rather than elaboration. The crucial thing is, from what I can now remember of sitting down in front of In the Heights, they are dynamic, and they are often very pleasant to hear out - and there is an argument that the songs in In the Heights demonstrate a range that the later Hamilton could only underline. Yes, we get Miranda's now-signature, Eminem-lite raps for Usnavi and his boys; but also a saucy chorus of beauticians speculating on the size of Benny's stretch limousine, and thereby nudging us back in the direction of both the ultra-Caucasian Grease and Grace Jones's "Pull Up to the Bumper". We get a mass torch song to mark the passing of a village elder; and the kind of aspirational anthems that are what I imagine the slower songs on the Olivia Rodrigo album would sound like. (Cannot confirm, because any fortysomething male downloading said album would likely wind up on some kind of register somewhere.)
The director, Jon M. Chu, is no Spielberg, but a self-effacing pro who cut his teeth on those Step Up danceathons, did a surprisingly likable job with the Justin Bieber documentary, and - buoyed by the commercial success of these and 2018's Crazy Rich Asians - now gets to recreate elaborate Busby Berkeley manoeuvres with hundreds of extras at one of uptown Manhattan's municipal swimming pools. The "municipal" there - with its inference of general access - is key to what In the Heights is going for. A post-crash proposition, it's not selling the glamour or exclusivity those Thirties musicals were, as signalled by Miranda's onscreen cameo as a street vendor whose cry is "keep scraping by". There's an element of conservatism - and knowing your place - in that, as there was a calculated element of centrism about Hamilton, a show that had to be very careful to entice middle-aged theatreland habitués to shell out $100 a ticket in return for an evening of semi-raucous hip-hop. Usnavi is characterised as a good boy who ultimately has to abandon his dreams of chilling on an idyllic-looking beach in the D.R. in order to reopen his shop and do his bit for the economy. Yet Chu's direction of bodies in motion - his celebration of whatever mobility these characters have - is enough to move his players and us past that potential stumbling block. He shoots full frames, with as few cuts as possible, the better to showcase Christopher Scott's very fine choreography; and in the final moments, he arrives at a real, quietly affecting movie flourish, watching Nina and Benny dance their way up the side of a building, as Fred Astaire did in 1951's Royal Wedding: two kids who by dint of their ethnicity wouldn't stand a chance of occupying centre stage in a Hollywood musical eighty years ago, suddenly defying gravity in a way only our better musicals permit.
In the Heights is now playing in cinemas nationwide.