Let me start with a few caveats so you can decide whether or not to totally disregard my opinion. I dislike musicals. Like a lot. I’m also Latino. So, there’s the rub. I’m torn between wanting to promote positive representations of Latinx culture and my general distaste for the musical genre.
Sitting in the theater during a crucial, yet utterly predictable plot point I realized why I hate musicals so much. Now I should say that I totally appreciate the artistry and craft that it takes to make a musical and there’s no denying that the performers are amazing from top to bottom. But so much of a musical’s runtime is devoted to the song and dance numbers, which by and large don’t advance the plot or deepen the characters, that there’s almost no time for these elements. Out of necessity and economy the characters and plots have to be easily relatable and quickly told. Which makes for two dimensional characters and easy resolvable plots. Which for me is uninteresting and unengaging. But if the singing and dancing are good, I might be able to look past these deficiencies and as I said earlier the performers are truly amazing it’s just that the songs are so generic and forgettable. Despite not liking musicals there are still plenty of show tunes that live rent free in my head, from “Summer Nights” to “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, songs with catchy lyrics and hummable tunes. None of the songs that LMM has written have gotten stuck with me.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the plot, In the Heights is centered on a bodega owner and all the people in his neighborhood, the primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood of Washington Heights. He’s in love with a girl who works at a nail salon but dreams of being a fashion designer. There’s his smart-alecky and street wise cousin. His friend who works as a taxi dispatcher who is in love with the boss’s daughter, a college student on home from break. And of course, Abuelita, the neighborhood matriarch. There are some obstacles to the romance but nothing that can’t be resolved in a song or two. Overall there seems to be nothing that can’t be resolved with a well-choreographed musical number. Am I being too harsh? Isn’t that every musical?
A friend of mine hopes the film will be good but told me that rarely does the “cheesiness of a musical translate to a film” and I wouldn’t argue with her on that point here. But is the cheesiness of this film inherent to all musicals or is there something else? This is where I am really torn. As a Latino I am all for more representation in Hollywood but I’m not sure this is it. Clearly the characters are not playing stereotypes like drug dealers, housekeepers or gardeners but it seems like a small step. The writers make sure to pepper the script with “Spanglish” just to let you know that these are Latinos speaking, like the Hispanic reporter on TV who over enunciates every Spanish word and rolls the r in their name particularrry hard. Another Latino friend joked that he was going to make a drinking game where you take a drink every time someone says “ayyy, mija.” Granted it is wonderful that the film depicts Latinx’s as business owners and college students but for me most of the characters teetered on parody talking in thick Spanish accents like Ricky Ricardo or Sofia Vergara. Again, the musical genre is not made for subtly and nuance so how much of this is due to the form itself? Ideas like gentrification and micro-aggression racism are brought up but quickly dismissed with a literal wave of the hand and twirl of the body. But this is meant to be a fun musical, you say. Then why bring up these ideas at all? Why introduce them only to quietly brush them off? It’s as if LMM wanted to explore some of these deeper issues but realized this is supposed to be a fun, mainstream musical and the last thing he wants to do is stop the block party. In the end I feel any progress made in representation is blunted by the sometimes cliché depiction of some of the characters and easily dismissed political and social issues.
Director Jon Chu has a background in music videos and that clearly shows as he’s more than adept at the bombast that’s required in most musicals. In particular there’s a glorious showstopper of a number that takes place in a public pool that will no doubt be referenced and played again and again come Oscar time but he lacks the ability to effectively direct the small, intimate, moments that can equally resonate with an audience. It’s these quiet moments that often have the most power but Chu seems more interested in spectacle and razzle-dazzle.
Make no mistake this is a film made for white people. In the same way that most rap music is consumed by suburban white listeners this is a musical meant for white consumption. Latinx representation has been distilled and commoditized, packaged and sold for mass consumption. I have no doubt this movie will be a big hit and I know I am in a very small minority of critics that did not like this film. I’ll admit that the film is fun and provides a certain measure of solace during these “difficult times” but maybe I want something more. If the end result of this film’s success is more Latinx representation than I’m all for it. But if it’s just more latinxplotation, more of a “brown minstrel show” meant to appeal to the masses then count me out.
In the Heights
Director Jon M. Chu
Writers Quiara Alegria Hudes
Stars Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV ,Jimmy Smits
Running Time 2h 23m