Musicals come in varying shapes and sizes, some are large and fantastical, others are modest and subtle; there is no right way to do it, but rather, only what works for the story at hand. In the Heights is by all measurements one of those large and fantastical musicals you hear about, it aligns with every preconceived notion and stereotype the average person would have about film musicals. It’s loud, dramatic, and very excessive in its attempt to inspire you – this is the kind of musical that will make the people who loathe musicals feel more confident in that view than ever before. Quite simply, In the Heights is as musical as musicals get, so if you’re not on board with that, then it’d be best to turn back now. For everyone else, you’ll be rewarded with bombastic sing-along numbers pumped directly into your ear canals – this is perhaps the most energetic musical seen on-screen in years – at least at this kind of scale.
In the Heights follows the stories of everyday citizens living in Washington Heights, N.Y as they dream about the possibility of a better life for themselves or for those around them. And a dream is precisely what this film feels like, as audiences are treated to a theatrical showcase of characters wandering the streets of Washington Heights, divulging the details of their lives and aspirations, all through the lens of colorful song and dance. Throughout the course of this story we bear witness to a variety of musical numbers – from intimate singular songs describing the personal struggles they’re going through, to large scale flashmob operatics that seemingly involve the entire block of residents; there’s no shortage of variance throughout this film. Much like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage show Hamilton, the fusion of rap and classic song and dance is very present here too, however, the addition of traditional Spanish instrumentation and lyrics set the sound apart from what you typically hear throughout Hamilton.
It’s unsurprising however that there is a great degree of similarity between these two musicals; in particular, I found my attention being drawn toward the tonal similarities. Hamilton, like In the Heights, has an unmistakable sense of enthusiastic energy, almost as though each lyric is attempting to punch straight through your chest and awaken every excitable cell it can muster. As mentioned, there’s plenty of variety within In the Heights, from solemn ballads to solo raps, but that same energy can be felt here that was felt in Hamilton. Admittedly, this tonal repetition becomes a little tedious, as the barrage of inspirational musical numbers all appear to be screaming the same variation of the same thing. Thankfully, the energetic performances are what ultimately holds engagement, as many of the same performers from the stage show are present in this film, bleeding through a sense of physicality that would likely otherwise be lost from standard screen actors.
These large musical and dance ensembles are fantastic throughout and much like the recent musical La La Land (2016), the dance choreography and camera work are stunning. The logistics and creativity involved in tracking its characters through the streets and large crowds before diving underwater full of synchronised swimmers, this all exponentially enhanced the film’s sense of scope and visual decadence. Throughout most of the musical ensembles the camera is often on the move helping to elevate the energy of both the characters and songs. The film has very minimal CGI sequences, however when they are used they often feel out of place and off-putting which hampers the visual creativity that this film is striving for.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hometown of Washington Heights may look and feel like a poorer district of New York City that we are accustomed to seeing on film, it is however, a refreshing breath of fresh air. As small of a district Washington Heights may be, the set-design and locations explore the district to make it feel as large as possible while keeping the streets aesthetic alive through the graffiti tagged buildings to the Hispanic flags flying proudly through the streets. It’s hard to be impressed by the raw scale of theatrics at play here, as some of the dance numbers involve people ranging in the hundreds.
There’s no doubt that the amount of musicals lined up for the next few years is indicative of another golden age in Hollywood, and if they’re anywhere near the quality that In the Heights has displayed then it’s an exciting future for sure. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a force to be reckoned with within the world of musicals. If he’s just getting started, then the future of this medium of storytelling has a bright one.