Review by Katie McKenna
Lin Manuel Miranda’s fall from grace was sudden and public. Legitimate criticisms about his hit musical ‘Hamilton’ glorifying slave owners soon descended to lip biting memes on TikTok. However, a common theme throughout Miranda’s career seems to be a lack of self-awareness, an aggressively earnest belief in himself and an adamant certainty that he can do no wrong. This fatal flaw has followed him throughout his career and helped him become the symbol of ‘fake-wokeness’ and ‘millennial cringe’, and it has most definitely followed him to the adaptation of his 2008 musical In the Heights. Whether it be the ignoring of the Afro-Latino community or Miranda’s butt-clenching awkward cameo, In the Heights (Jon M. Chu, 2021) despite not being directed or adapted for the screen by Miranda, it still has all his failings. However, its problems run deeper than that.
With the looming threat of gentrification, simply getting by is becoming more and more of a challenge for the residents of Washington Heights. In The Heights follows the dynamic citizens of this neighbourhood as they struggle to find a better life.
In the Heights is the kind of film that reminds you of the importance of cinemas. Director John M. Chu creates a vibrant and bombastic world. Every closed door or dropped box or even step taken is intentional, creating a rhythm to the world, an immersive experience worth the €15 ticket and criminally overpriced popcorn. It also feels like a return to movie musicals’ roots. With the exception of The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017), recent musicals seem to think the only way to be taken seriously is to be as gritty as possible, like if they were fun, they wouldn’t stand a chance at winning an Oscar. In the Heights doesn’t fall into this trap; while it doesn’t stick to serious subject matter all the time, it isn’t afraid to be camp either. Every song feels like an event, whether it be the grandiose ‘96,000’ or the intimately romantic ‘When the Sun Goes Down’. It’s hard not to watch the musical numbers with a smile on your face. It’s when the music stops that the problems begin.
Chu, Miranda and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes seem to be tackling a smorgasbord of issues. From gentrification to immigration to racial discrimination, In the Heights tries to be a film that talks about every issue facing Latin Americans, but instead essentially covers none. By biting off more than it can chew, In the Heights strips all the nuance from every issue and instead gives us a surface level exploration of overly-simplified issues affecting characters that aren’t developed enough for us to truly understand. Except for the protagonist Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), characters seem to let go of strongly held beliefs at the drop of a hat, giving audiences whiplash. It’s a shame that with In the Heights Chu fell into the same trap as Miranda. Skimming over important issues to seem woke without going into the depth they deserve. If the film had picked just one character to focus on and gave their story the nuance it deserved, then In the Heights could have been a modern classic, telling a story absent from mainstream cinema. But instead, In the Heights is a film best enjoyed by turning off your brain and enjoying the fun songs.