Upon viewing In the Heights, I felt as if I were watching the birth of a new subgenre: the nine-hour musical. Then I checked the running time and discovered that, technically, In the Heights is only two hours and fifteen minutes long. But the effect it creates is a new one — the film stretches time to the point that you become highly conscious of all you might have accomplished in your life if you hadn’t watched In the Heights.
So far In the Heights is doing underwhelming business in theaters (as well as on HBO Max), though the sunny, sentimental, endlessly affirming musical with its seventy-five song-and-dance numbers had been touted as perfect summer fare, ideal for reassuring and cheering up a population uneasily emerging from the pandemic.
Meanwhile, horror films such as A Quiet Place Part II and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It are big hits. This makes sense to me, at least. We’ve got plenty to be anxious about and we know it. It seems far easier and more relaxing right now to sublimate our immediate fears by watching movie monsters than to strain to make the imaginative leap into scenarios where hundreds of people are feeling so gosh-darn fine that spontaneous dancing in the street is called for roughly every ten minutes.
And even if we were in the mood for a musical, which is doubtful, who wants to be handed a lead balloon like In the Heights, no matter how brightly colored it is?
For some reason that escapes me, critics are almost unanimously raving about this movie. I mean, you can’t buy them all off. I’m sorry to report, they’re at it again, evaluating a film largely in terms of its ideological good intentions. This one is a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda about the aspirations of Manhattan’s Washington Heights Latino community. It was a big Broadway hit in 2008, years before Hamilton became an even bigger one. Everybody’s got a dream in In the Heights, and they sing a great deal about it, even though in many cases their dreams will take them far away from Washington Heights, the place that’s being celebrated even as it’s also being ruined by gentrification and government anti-immigrant policies.
Even in terms of “progressive” representation, the film has already been angrily challenged by viewers accusing Miranda and director John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) of colorism, claiming that the majority of the lead performers are light-skinned, which ignores the significant Afro-Latin American population of the neighborhood. (Miranda has apologized in a much-discussed tweet.)
This scandal has probably done more to garner attention for In the Heights than anything else, given its failure as a musical. There’s a trick to filming musicals, there really is. I was initially convinced, watching In the Heights, that the problem was Chu had never directed a musical before. But it turns out he has, twice — Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) and Step Up 3D (2010). So I don’t know how to explain the camerawork and editing in this thing, which are busy and pointless, actively preventing you from getting emotionally involved with story, characters, or performances.
There are, no doubt, some extremely talented people in this film: the lead actors including Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, and Corey Hawkins, are all good-looking and energetic and personable and deserve more chances that aren’t quite such a combination of banal sentimentality and haphazard cinematic slicing and dicing.
In almost every number, the camera goes leaping all over the place, and the editing chops all the performances into a flavorless julienne salad. In some of the production numbers, you almost never see a dancer even complete a motion. A dancer does a half-turn — CUT — then another dancer starts a leap past her — CUT — then a dancing couple goes partway into a graceful bend — CUT — and so on.
And then there are the shot choices. Close-ups of singer-dancers’ heads — then feet — then knees — then stomachs. So many stomach shots. Not bare midriff shots showing amazing dancers’ musculature while they execute some tricky abdominal twists — nothing that merits our interest in the stomachs — they’re just regular stomachs.
And seriously, John Chu: incessant Busby Berkeley overhead shots, making abstract patterns of the dancers? In this day and age? At least Busby Berkeley used such shots to create flower patterns with performers’ moving bodies, giving us something to look at. He didn’t go to all the trouble of getting a camera fifty feet over the dancers’ heads just to get the viewer farther away from them.
Weirdly enough, all the frantic, choppy shooting and cutting creates a deadening sense of inertia. In the Heights is the greatest sleep aid currently on the market. If I were one of the dancers who spent their days on the set leaping and jumping for hours on end, I’d want to strangle John Chu with my bare hands.
I hate to go all Hollywood classics on you, but it’s worth reminding people that there used to be a whole art to shooting and cutting musicals that captured the performers’ amazing physicality by camera movement and editing in such a way as to maximize emotional response to the music and the context of the number.
There’s a reason why, in his many musicals, dancer Fred Astaire mandated that the camera had to keep his whole body visible in the frame while he performed. He wasn’t going to knock himself out giving some incredible performance that nobody could appreciate because they’d be staring at close-ups of his eyes or his knees or his left hand or something. Yet it couldn’t be a locked-down camera either, because that would be too static and un-involving.
Try watching a musical like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and you’ll see how mobile a camera can be — sometimes swinging and swirling in a complex choreography with their dancers — as well as just how incredible great musical talent in motion can be.
It’s going to be an interesting test to see whether Steven Spielberg can follow up this Miranda-Chu travesty with a knockout punch that kills off the movie musical genre for a generation with his remake of West Side Story, due this Christmas. The 1962 film version of West Side Story is dated, of course, featuring street gangs so cute and relatively harmless, their adorably choreographed dances can be imitated for very easy laughs. But damn — its emotional impact is downright hard-hitting compared to Miranda’s creampuff content. And it’s splendidly codirected by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, made with all the shooting and cutting expertise that movie people used to remember how to do. For those of us who still like film musicals — all fifty of us in a very small, demoralized club — the dread is palpable.
Though it must be admitted, if there’s one thing Spielberg can generally manage, it’s knowing where to put the camera.