New to rent this week is the big budget musical drama, In the Heights. The film – which was released in cinemas back in June – is now available to rent in the UK through various video-on-demand platforms, including Amazon, SKY Store, and iTunes, amongst others.
Directed by Jon M. Chu, In the Heights is based on the musical of the same name by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The movie tells the story of an Upper Manhattan neighbourhood called Washington Heights, where various residents dream big and convey their emotions through song and dance.
Set around the lives of multiple characters, including convenience store owner, Usnavi, the film looks at life in the local community – taking into account the good, the bad, and the in between of day-to-day living. The movie stars Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smits, Melissa Barrera, and Corey Hawkins, and follows Usnavi as he prepares to move out of his neighbourhood and into the big wide world, so he can run a bar in the Dominican Republic.
The story is told over the course of a few days, all leading up to Usnavi’s departure. Across those days, we see how Usnavi interacts with friends and neighbours, and what issues are important to him and those around him.
When In the Heights made its debut earlier this year, I didn’t get chance to catch it at the cinema. The film opened at a busy period for me, and with an influx of new movies all landing around the same time, it got pushed to the back of my viewing queue.
I could have made room for it, had I adjusted my schedule somewhat, but I will be honest, I wasn’t really sold on the movie’s trailer. The musical element of the film caught my attention, but none of the songs that were used to market the picture struck a chord, and I felt largely underwhelmed and uninterested on what was being promoted.
As such, the film sunk further and further down my viewing list, until it became clear I was not going to watch this one on the big screen. And having now watched the movie on the small screen, I believe I made the right decision to not rush out and see In the Heights in the cinema, because while it has a lot going for it, and looks super-slick, I’m still feeling underwhelmed and largely uninterested.
In terms of the story, In the Heights works very well. There’s a real depth here, lots of cultural insights, some great character beats, and an interesting exploration of societal, racial, and generational issues facing people in the US.
Usnavi is the central figure in this picture, and his story about moving beyond Washington Heights to somewhere he views as being better, is the driving force of the narrative and something which will draw in a significant cross-section of the audience. His story is an important one, and one which also allows other side-stories to be told.
One very interesting side-story that is presented, is that of Stanford University student, Nina, who wants to break away from the path her father has set out for her. Another side-story is that of Abuela, the neighbourhood matriarch, who explains how she faced various hardships when she first came to New York as a child.
All of this is strong material, which helps to keep the movie ticking along across its fairly lengthy 143-minute running time. But surrounding these character pieces is the musical element of the movie – the songs, the dance routines, and so on – and this is where I found myself disconnecting.
In terms of the musical element of this film, In the Heights did very little for me. I can appreciate the skill that has gone into composing the songs and the lyrics, but for me, at no point in the movie was I wowed by any of the tunes.
Abuela’s story, which was set to music, was momentarily captivating for sure, but I could have easily watched her tale play out without the music. In fact, while I can tell you all about the character’s difficulties as an immigrant child coming to the US, I can’t recall a note of the tune which accompanied the lyrics.
And if you asked me to hum any of the other tunes from In the Heights, I couldn’t. Sure, the songs felt powerful as they were being belted out, but they came and went and not a single one was particularly memorable.
And this isn’t an anti-musical thing – far from it in fact, because I love musicals. But when I watch a new musical, I do expect to find enjoyment from the songs, and the feeling that once the film is all over, it will be the tunes and ditties that stay with me long after the credits have rolled, yet this didn’t happen here.
So, for me, the musical side of this film was the disappointing side and that is a key reason why I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie. But, if I can park that for a moment, I do want to come back to the other aspects of this picture which did work.
There are some intimate moments in Into the Heights which really help to explore the characters, their relationships with each other, and the issues they face in their neighbourhood. A particularly strong moment takes place around a dinner scene, in which the character of Nina discusses how she was racially profiled at her college.
As the scene plays out, while Nina is pouring her heart out about what this type of situation means to her and people like her, her father is somewhat dismissive of the incident. He has come up against this kind of scenario before and he now shrugs it off, as though this sort of thing is acceptable as long as you rise above it.
It is during scenes like this one that this film finds its nuggets of gold. These little insights into the characters, and the individual struggles they face, is where this film truly hits its stride.
I liked all of this stuff and I certainly found it to be the real meat and potatoes of this picture; but I do feel like it would have worked better in a different film. Either that, or one in which the songs captured my attention and stayed with me.
In the Heights looks gorgeous and it is clearly a film that will connect with many people, but it just didn’t work for me. There is some strong material in the mix, and on a technical level I can’t fault the film, but if a movie doesn’t grab me in the right way, it doesn’t grab me, and this one didn’t.
If you adore musicals, then of course you will want to check this out – and there is every chance you will fall in love with this picture. However, while the story certainly had its moments, it lost my interest far too often and almost always because of the songs, resulting in a mediocre movie rather than a summer sizzler.