Everybody you see on-screen during In the Heights deserved better. For all the faults the movie has, absolutely none can be attributed to the work of its actors and dancers, who manage to invigorate each scene with joy whenever possible. The movie’s leading man, Anthony Ramos, carries such screen presence that his charisma might be enough to blind you through the screen. Make no doubt about it: he is meant to be a star. When Ramos bounces off other members of the ensemble cast, you can’t help but be charmed at their banter, but that charm pales in comparison to the spectacle of the larger musical numbers. It’s rare to see modern movie musicals with this many extras involved, and when In the Heights cuts to a wide shot of a 100+ people dancing in the street, the impact can be enough to truly sell the film’s celebration of community.
If only the people dancing were given better circumstances to work with. It’s worth noting that I’m unfamiliar with the source material, meaning I can’t comment on what was changed or what was included from the Broadway show. However, as is, the music here didn’t really do much for me. For a 140 minute movie, there are only two or three musical numbers that stuck with me after the credits rolled, with most of the other songs blending together in their Latin groove and subject matter. I don’t think this is me disliking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s style; after all, I consider Hamilton to be a work of true genius. The difference is that Hamilton keeps evolving throughout its entire runtime, delivering songs that feel wholly unique from one another, whereas In the Height reveals most of its tricks before the halfway mark. It’s hard not to feel worn down, with the high from previous songs like 96,000 a distant memory by the time the credits roll. Cutting down the movie’s runtime by removing some songs would have done wonders.
You would think that the dancing redeems these musical numbers, and — for the most part — you are right. Unfortunately, the movie too rarely lets us marinate in the choreography on-screen, instead feeling the need to frequently cut between different angles and obscure the dancing. For a movie whose spectacle is an asset, In the Heights feels intent on reducing its scale, and where’s the fun in that? Why spend hours staging these massive dance numbers if you don’t let us bask in their glory for more than five consecutive seconds? This complaint might seem like a minor and technical one, but the art of a movie musical extends beyond choreographing a dance number and pointing a camera at it. The camera’s movement should be dynamic, integrated within the number alongside the dancers, yet here it feels like there’s little rhythm or intentionality to how some scenes are constructed. Considering I’m not crazy about the music to begin with — and how much of it there is — this issue is only more problematic.
Much like the music, the story also is a bit overstuffed and repetitive. Characters and sub-plots end up vying for screentime, cannibalizing one another as climactic events feel rushed and unearned. Everything in regards to community and immigration is also addressed in the broadest of strokes — an otherwise smart decision to prioritize feel-good emotions, but one that doesn’t lend itself to a runtime this long. Still, it’s the cast that holds everything together, oozing with personality that compensates for the gaps in narrative. By the time the movie’s finale arrived, my emotional investment was pretty low, yet Ramos and his co-stars land their beats so well that it’s almost enough to convince me I was on board the entire time…almost. Don’t you think a groundbreaking feat in diversity and tribute to large-ensemble musicals should reach higher heights than that?