In the Heights (Review)

Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the acclaimed stage show really wants you to know it is a film. It is all spectacle all the way through, with fantastical inflections that could never happen on stage. The camera is also incredibly pronounced: we shift constantly in large musical numbers (of which there are many, too many), cycling through all the maximalist displays like a child in a sweet shop. There’s this, and this, and this. And, it is overwhelming, disorientating. And, much like that child: you actually want the sweets on offer, not just the display. In the Heights only gives you the display, with every sequence feeling like a sizzle reel for all the great stuff that is going on while never actually letting that great stuff breathe.

With some films, you just feel like the camera is always in the right place. It is hard to articulate what this means – and so much down to editing, as well as coverage – but each subsequent shot is perfect. There is a sense of escalation as a well put together film continues, with each shot linking to the next one or building off of it in some minor or major sense. In this film, the camera position often feels off. The framing in general is merely okay and each chosen shot seems purely utilitarian. The sequences do not build or escalate, they just cycle through and none of the choices feel intentional beyond mere presentation of what is going on. Of course, this goes back to the film reminding you it is a film. However, as a musical, the film needs to put the musicality – and the dance – at the forefront. In this work, I am sure there is good choreography but it is rarely showcased. The camera bobs around and cuts to something else, using crowd scenes as spectacle, and picking obtuse angles, as opposed to letting something unfurl in front of a camera. Where better filmmakers glide their cameras, or let them sit, this just wobbles.

The experience here is just very samey. Each song is staged in the same way, all technically large but never effectively conveying scale. Also, the idea of scale gets overwhelming. It is just crowd scene after crowd scene and the musical sequences blend into one. This is not helped by the middle ground approach the film continually takes. It is not sung all the way through, but then the songs feel more conversational than thematic – often incorporating dialogue in the song before jumping to normal spoken dialogue afterwards. This middle ground approach continues elsewhere. It is not full blown magical realist, and then it starts to become fantastical, but then it also wants to be gritty and real. There is a lack of commitment and the oscillating aesthetic means that neither side of the equation works.

Narratively, the film also disappoints. It is a solid cultural portrait – it evokes a place nicely; but, the characters feel thin and archetypal and their arcs overtly familiar. There is little satisfying or surprising here, something only heightened by the bland visuals. The colour grading and overall design choices make each sequence look homogenous. Single tones or hues dominate and bright light drowns everything – masking potential beauty. The whole look of the film is flat and stale, when it should be vibrant. However, the last hour of this, inexplicably two hour and twenty minute, film (it could easily be 90 minutes) contains some striking, and more varied, imagery. The director’s earlier film, Crazy Rich Asians, was a huge success and was very good. Their opulent style worked and the whole thing was a feast for the eyes. Here, that sensibility is at odds with the film. This work cannot luxuriate, it needs to feel vibrant and alive; it just does not. There is a lack of electricity (ironically, due to a later plot point), vibrancy and energy. The vim and vigour required is lacking in the filmmaking. So much of the film is about increasing heat, increasing tensions and general escalation but the direction does not bring this. While the film should boil, or even simmer, it stagnates. Too much of it feels too samey.

This is not a total failure, there are some great sequences that diverge from the rest – and a handful of touching human moments. As a whole, though, too much just does not work. It is a story based around characters that aren’t given enough humanity and a film built around songs that are not interesting enough. It may be a film about Heights but the result is mostly flat.

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