james debate
james debate

Sunday 25 July 2021

Directed by John M. Chu
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Hudes
Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Hudes, Scott Sanders
Starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera
Studio Warner Bros
Running time 143 minutes

in the heights hamilton 2021 musical film broadway lin manuel miranda oscars
We've seen this story before. An artist hits the big time and generates a renewed interest in their older works (see: Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code). Lin Manuel Miranda is one of the hottest names in show business today following the runaway success of Broadway musical Hamilton, a star that has only continued to rise with his subsequent work, notably his work with Disney that has earned him his first Academy Award nomination. But he can only produce so much new work in a given year, so it is natural that the studios would dive into his older projects in the hopes that they can rise his name to the bank.

In the Heights is one of Lin Manuel's first works, his very first stage musical and a Tony and Grammy award winning production. Its adaptation to cinema may have been accelerated by Lin's recent superstardom, but as a successful and well-regarded piece of theatre in its own right it was always likely to be on the cards at some point. While the script is credited to the stage play's original writers Lin Manuel and Quiara Hudes, directorial duties have been handed to John M Chu, hitherto best known for 2018's surprise hit Crazy Rich Asians.

As with so many first works, In the Heights is a loosely autobiographical work based on Lin's years living in the predominantly Dominican Washington Heights neighbourhood in New York. There's nothing revolutionary in the story here: you've got a love story or two, young people trying to "make it" and break out of poverty, and an ultimately heart warming message about the importance of family and good people.  It's a serviceable but familiar story, with many classic tropes from the overbearing father to the irreverent childhood friend and the local "neighbourhood mom".

It's a similar story with the music. Lin Manuel is currently one of the world's most sough after songwriters, but in this early work you can tell that he is not yet the finished article. The songs here draw on culturally appropriate influences, predominately rap and salsa, but lack the musical diversity and creative genre subversions of Lin's later work. The lyrics display hints of Lin's typical wit and charm and occasionally strike gold, but rarely shock or surprise in the same way as his later writing. That is not to say that it's bad. This is a good musical with some very solid songs, albeit ones that are quite simplistic by their songwriter's standards. Even after a few re-listens of the soundtrack I struggle to recall many of the songs until a few bars in. Compare that to the opening of Hamilton, where right from the first notes you know exactly what you're listening to. Ultimately, these are fine, catchy songs, but lack the distinctiveness that makes Lin's more famous songs so memorable.

Where In the Heights does succeed is in the filmmaking department, and John M Chu will have done his own rising stardom no harm here. There is great vibrancy in every scene with a vivid colour palette, playful special effects and striking imagery throughout. Some of the dance in particular setpieces are very memorable.

In the Heights is a good adaptation of a pretty good musical. While it may not be revolutionary in any respect, it contains all the joy and energy one could want from a summer musical blockbuster. If you want a bit of musical fun in the sun this summer, then this will scratch that itch and could well be a factor in this year's awards season. In the longterm, however, this is unlikely to leave much of a legacy and will serve mainly as fascinating snapshot of a budding songwriter who would go on to be one of the greats.

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