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Review: 'In the Heights'

There is a question as old as show business itself. It comes on the heels of a major hit show. Just at the moment in which everyone is reveling in success, someone bursts the bubble and asks, “Yeah, but what are you going to do for an encore?”

It’s a buzz kill. But inevitably everyone with a hit anything has to ask themselves the nagging but obvious question, “How the hell am I ever going to top that?”

It’s certainly a question that Lin-Manuel Miranda faced in the aftermath of the Broadway Musical (and film adaption) tidal wave known as Hamilton.

In Lin-Manuel’s case, there was a previous, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical called In the Heights (which opened in March of 2008) that was in the wings and ready to go.

It just needed some adaptation and the fresh cinematic vision of a hot Hollywood director.

Quiara Alegria Hudes collaborated with Lin-Manuel on the screenplay. Jon M. Chu (director of the smash movie hit Crazy Rich Asians, 2018) came aboard to helm.

A first-rate cast was assembled and the buzz began to reverberate.

A dream project about dreamers. A contemporary love story that had all the earmarkings of an updated West Side Story.

The preview clips were constructed of shots that look like they were from that 1961 movie musical masterpiece co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins that went on to win 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (shared by Wise and Robbins).

Things started to sizzle with anticipation and excitement. Might this be the long-awaited project that would finally eclipse West Side Story?

It seems that Lin-Maunel Miranda wasn’t the only filmmaker looking to topple the success of this classic film.

Steven Spielberg is currently putting the finishing touches on his updated adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical version of West Side Story starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, slated for release on December 10th.

While I am a big fan of Spielberg and his long list of blockbusting, modern-day classic movies, I have to admit that I was a little shocked when I first learned about the West Side Story project.

For me, the perfect West Side Story had already been made back in 1961. I know it’s 60 years old, but perfection is perfection.

I firmly believe that certain movie classics should never, ever be remade. West Side Story is one of them.

Add it to other classics like Gone With the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942). For my money, they are impossible to top or replicate.

There isn’t another Clark Gable or Vivian Leigh. There isn’t another Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman. I’m sorry. That’s just the way it is.

Can we please move on and create some new movie classics with fresh material and contemporary talent?

The similarities between In the Heights and West Side Story are inescapable. The themes of cultural assimilation and star-crossed lovers caught up in the social and political conflict are obvious.

The elaborate dance scenes shot on location in an urban setting harken back to the days when the decision to move the filming from the Hollywood sound stages to the streets of New York was a big, bold, unprecedented move, creatively.

All of this has been done before.

On a technical level, In the Heights cashes in on all the latest cinematic bells and whistles, unencumbered by the heavy camera equipment and scorching lights of Hollywood past. New technology allows color and energy light up the screen.

The trouble is that the movie never really rises to new heights in a significant way.

It runs long (2 hours 23 minutes). And during that run time, it never achieves a sense of life-and-death drama that we saw in West Side Story.

No feuding gangs. No undercurrent of violence and death running just below the surface of the ill-fated young lovers and their forbidden passion.

In the Heights is content to follow the stories of the people trying to define themselves and find their future in a world intent on holding them back and holding them down.

There are some spectacular moments.

One involves a beautifully choreographed dance that begins on a fire escape, evolves into a gravity-defying performance on the side of the building, and softly concludes on the fire escape where it all began.

It’s dazzling. But even this has been done before.

I am referring to Fred Astaire’s classic dance scene in Stanley Donen’s Royal Wedding (1951) in which Fred dances up the wall of a hotel room, across the ceiling and down the opposite wall. In those days, all this was done with the use of a rotating set and rotating camera.

Stanley Kubrick used this kind of trickery in his sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey when the astronaut jogs around the interior of the Jupiter space probe.

Despite the glitz and hype, we’ve seen much of In the Heights before. It’s not West Side Story.

I’m not saying that it isn’t worth seeing. It’s an enjoyable movie musical. But it doesn’t live up to the hype or expectations.

Speaking of expectations, Lin-Manuel Miranda recently came under fire relating to the perceived lack of inclusion relating to the casting of the movie.

I’ll skip the details. But I do want to say that I was disappointed that he chose to publicly apologize for his casting choices.

As a filmmaker, in my opinion, he has the right to tell his story anyway he likes, particularly when it is based on his own life experiences. It’s his movie. It’s his call.

Unfortunately, we currently live in a world in which everyone seems poised and ready to take offense at something. Just about anything.

Artists, across the boards, are constantly coming under attack for the choices they make. Some of them cave to the pressure and feel compelled to offer apologies. In this case, I wish he hadn’t.

I don’t mean to sound cold or unsympathetic, but artists need to have the creative space to open their hearts and minds and express themselves through their work, knowing that it’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time.

We all need to chill. Let’s save the anger, resentment and rage for instances involving actual, deliberate malicious intent. I would never believe that was the case here.


In the Heights is in theaters and on HBO Max.

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