Director: Jon Chu
In the Heights is a bad play made into a bad movie, and early opinions otherwise have a very strong Emperor’s-New-Clothes smell about them. Lin-Manuel Miranda created Heights early in his career, and it won some accolades, moving from off-Broadway to Broadway, picking up some awards, and traveling around. It wasn’t until Hamilton that he struck gold and became a household name, but Heights was his stepping stone, and for that it deserves respect. But that doesn’t make it quality theatre, and any slightly discerning observer should be able to pick out its problems with ease. That critics were gushing about the film version as soon as the embargo lifted and they were allowed to do so felt funny at the time, but makes sense now; no one wanted to be the first one to shout out that the king of modern musicals had embarrassed himself.
Usnavi runs a bodega in New York City, in his neighborhood of Washington Heights. He dreams of someday going back to the country his family came from, opening up a shop there, and beginning a better life. But when he thinks about what he has in NYC, he knows he will miss the music of the streets and the smiling faces of its people: Sonny the boy he employs and protects, Vanessa the girl he secretly loves, Benny his best friend, Nina the smart girl who carries the hopes of the whole neighborhood on her shoulders, Abuela Claudia the grandmother who is a mother to them all. There’s a rhythm to the city that’s amazing, a color that’s so vibrant, made up of all the immigrant families who have made this city their home and have carved out a piece of ground for their children, and it will be hard for Usnavi to give that up for a chance at something else.
I am grumpy about Hamilton, I will admit that out front. I’m not trying to be a nonconformist or a contrarian, I simply don’t think it’s amazing. I like it, it’s good, it’s smart, but it’s no masterpiece, no Sondheim, and no so many other musicals that came before and are so much better. People who spend hundreds of dollars on Hamilton tickets but have never seen a Broadway Across America production make me physically angry, and I guess some of that ire gets directed at Miranda, who is in no way a master. His only other shows are In the Heights and Bring It On: The Musical, and they simply aren’t good, you can quickly see that for yourself if you aren’t blinded by the unique qualities of Hamilton. Even those seemingly original pieces can be heard in Heights, an experiment that took him where he wanted to go, which, I guess, is a reason to give it credit, but not to pretend that it’s quality.
In the Heights, the movie version, is simply a mess of scenes, songs, and sundry, a musical that’s almost not a musical since you literally can’t repeat any single song after you stop watching the film; they all disappear into the thin air they were born from. Not only are the songs weak and unsupported, but they are scattered at random, placed into the action at random, are sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, sometimes rapped, until audiences aren’t sure what kind of show they’re watching, or if it’s even a show underneath all the color of the story arc. You will like the main character, he is designed that way, and you will like the beauty of the moments described; Miranda at least has a talent for awing us when he puts his mind to it. But this movie doesn’t offer much else; the acting is awful, the pace is slow, the progression seems unedited, the side plots are overwhelming, the love stories feel fake, and it’s simply a slog to get through, making two and a half hours seem like a lifetime. I may not like Hamilton as much as the rest of you, but I promise I was open to liking Heights; it just didn’t deserve it.
My rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆