I have to confess something. I’ve never seen Hamilton before. In fact, not only have I never seen Hamilton, I also don’t particularly like most musicals (with a few notable exceptions) or dancing or stage-like, bare-his-soul singing that explains your thoughts. Nothing important in life or in a movie should ever be solved by singing or dancing. Fictional characters should work out their internal problems and external conflicts in a normal and understandable way, with brief monologues, dark looks and lavishly choreographed action scenes.
So when it comes to the musical art form and all of its trappings, I admit that I am what you might call a curmudgeon, which in the long run means that I am nowhere near the goal of In the Heights, the new film musical by Hamilton, am Schreiber Lin Manuel Miranda and Step Up 2: The Streets director Jon M. Chu. This film is not for me. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
And yet I found it somehow charming, even heartwarming. I don’t know if it’s a great movie, but it’s a smooth and really engaging production, carried by a message of DIY community building and business advancement.
Part of this charm is a product of Chu’s skilful direction, who transforms the choreographed song spectacle of the stage musical, which premiered in 2005, into a series of decidedly cinematic sequences. Some of these songs produce big numbers with ambitious designs and dozens of extras. But some of the best parts of the film are smaller and more intimate as Chu transforms the rhythms of everyday life – walking down the street, stamping prices on tin cans in a little corner market – into cleverly cut pieces of musical cinema.
Much of the movie’s success owes its really appealing cast, particularly Anthony Ramos as Usnavi de la Vega and Melissa Barrera as his (maybe) love interest, Vanessa. Both wholeheartedly deliver performances that manage to get deeply serious without ever coming off like cheese ball.
That seriousness, in turn, drives the big themes and values of the story that revolve around entrepreneurship, immigration, and self-established communities. Set in the heavily Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, In the Heights is essentially the story of an immigrant community who come together to determine their own future.
Sometimes that future is forged by struggling with a labyrinthine immigration bureaucracy and racist attitudes, and there is an admittedly too intrusive subplot about DREAMers that wasn’t in the stage version. But politics is only part of the story. By and large, In the Heights views immigration as an entrepreneurial act, an individual decision to build a better life with new neighbors.
So it is fitting that the future of the community is shaped more often than not by trade. The action runs through Usnavi’s bodega in the neighborhood, but there is also a parlor and hangout run by two women from the neighborhood, a taxi switchboard run by another local, Kevin Rosario (played with delightful ease and seriousness by Jimmy Smits), a local attorney handling serious immigration cases and even a piragua (Puerto Rican shaved ice) cart operated by a character played by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
These businesses are consistently portrayed as both sources of hard-earned personal wealth and valuable social connections, especially when the neighborhood is hit by a crisis in the form of a citywide blackout towards the end of Act II. By charging people for useful services – and keeping those services running during difficult times – they improve their own lives and also help their neighbors. Their lives will improve and their local universe will be a better place as their business grows.
The film doesn’t completely knock you out with this message, but it’s not exactly subtle either: The last scene after the credits shows how Miranda’s street cart piraguas are becoming a hot commodity among the residents of the block. In response to increasing demand, he is increasing prices, leaving his biggest competitor, Mister Softee, behind. (Mister Softee does not respond with anger, but with reluctant respect.) It is an entrepreneurial success story of immigrants and a fitting reference for a film that celebrates such values seriously and exuberantly – albeit through people who spontaneously break out into song and dance, about their feelings. Hm. Maybe I like musicals after all.