Movies

Why In the Heights Is the Movie Musical’s Biggest Step Forward Since Moulin Rouge!

Both understand that the power of musicals is inextricable from their corniness.

In the Heights and Moulin Rouge!
In the Heights and Moulin Rouge! Photos by HBO Max and 20th Century Fox

In the Heights took a while to migrate from the stage to the movies: 14 years from off-Broadway to cinemas and HBO Max accounts everywhere—and add an extra seven if you want to count from the show’s earliest draft, a student production at Wesleyan University that went up in the year 2000. (I was a classmate of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s at the time, and the ravenous demand for tickets prepared me for the impossibility of getting into Hamilton.) Though In the Heights was (eventually) a Tony-winning Broadway hit, it was, to some extent, overshadowed by its influences (Rent) and the cultural phenomenon of Miranda’s Broadway follow-up. On movie screens, however, the calculus changes. The Rent movie is negligible, a proper Hamilton movie (i.e., not just a filmed record of the stage production) is years if not decades away, and In the Heights is arguably the most important movie musical since Moulin Rouge!

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Moulin Rouge! debuted in theaters in May of 2001, a little over a year after that first college production of In the Heights, and its success—nearly $180 million in global box office, eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture—helped revive Hollywood’s interest in the live-action movie musical. The next year, Chicago took in nearly twice as much on its way to winning Best Picture, and with that, the dam burst and movie musicals became a fixture of the release calendar again. Les Misérables, Mamma Mia!, La La Land, and The Greatest Showman were such big hits that not even the occasional high-profile flop—like the failed version of the runaway Broadway smash The Producers—could dissuade studios from singing and dancing.

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While some of the musicals that followed it went on to bigger box office and greater rewards, Moulin Rouge! stands out because it actually attempted to transform the form of the musical film, more so than most of the bigger hits that followed. Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece looks both forward and backward through a single kaleidoscope. It is an unabashedly old-fashioned melodrama set in 1899 Paris, where “penniless” writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) falls in love with consumptive courtesan and aspiring actress Satine (Nicole Kidman); it is also an intentionally anachronistic jukebox mashup with frenzied post-MTV editing.

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That aggressive editing style, like almost all aggressive editing styles, looks less feverish 20 years later. But it’s fascinating to see how few of the musicals that followed Moulin Rouge! understand how to wield a cinematic cut, among other techniques. Rob Marshall, director of Chicago, Nine, and Into the Woods, often employs a similarly fast-paced style for his musical sequences, but to far less emotional, visceral effect; it’s the difference between frenetic speed and full-on exhilaration. Luhrmann is more interested in using editing to juxtapose images, as in the furiously rhythmic “El Tango de Roxanne” number, than simply cutting between vantage. Moulin Rouge! embraces the earnest corniness of an older musical and communicates through the language of pop music and music videos, complete with channel-flipping. Back in 2001, the “Elephant Love Medley” sequence vexed some viewers because McGregor and Kidman switch which song they’re singing every couple of bars, but those criticisms missed the urgency with which their duet zig-zags through pop history. That its checkpoints include cornball ditties like Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” makes the scene even more joyful—and improbably powerful. Corny, inescapable earworms, the movie reminds us, can be vessels of real feeling. No wonder it emboldened so many filmmakers to take another crack at the great movie musical.

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In the Heights isn’t the only good movie musical to emerge in the wake of Moulin Rouge! There are indie gems, like God Help the Girl; mainstream successes, like Damien Chazelle’s gorgeous La La Land; and attempts to offer more diverse narratives, like Dreamgirls and Black Nativity. But Heights is certainly the best Broadway adaptation of this century so far and, like Luhrmann’s film, performs a magical act of simultaneously calling back and moving forward. (Despite some contemporary flourishes, La La Land mostly looks backward by design; it’s part of the movie’s thematic architecture.) Director Jon M. Chu hits plenty of classic touchstones, staging a public pool number with Busby Berkeley touches and defying gravity to let two of his leads dance up and down a wall, not unlike Fred Astaire’s trick in Royal Wedding. A number featuring Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) collapses memories, hopes, and regrets into a stunning mini-biography setpiece, recalling the kind of stage-show-within-a-film numbers seen in The Band Wagon or An American in Paris.

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These homages are unusually fluid and contemporary because Chu integrates them into the Washington Heights setting seamlessly and expressively. The movie rarely feels like it’s pausing to tee up a musical number, because the musical numbers are the movie. Recall that the Oscar-winning smash Chicago used the conceit that its lead character might be imagining all of that song and dance stuff, making unnecessary concessions both to quasi-realism and the stage version.  Chu thinks beyond his source material’s staging. He’s unafraid to use visual metaphors, like Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) catching glimpses of her younger self on her neighborhood streets, that aren’t called out in dialogue or even song.

Of course, there are other movie musicals that translate potentially stagy material into the visual language of cinema. Yet it’s also not a given for recent big-studio productions, which often seem caught between embracing the genre’s artificiality (like Greatest Showman’s poor-man’s-Moulin Rouge! anachronisms) and tastefully constraining it with source-material fidelity—or, like Marshall, mismatching the worst tendencies of film and theater. Heights does the opposite, pulling from the best of both worlds: a dash of theatrical put-on-a-show cornball optimism without any of the self-amused Broadway humor of something like The Prom; an effective use of a single-take song without calling attention to itself à la Les Miz; and so on, as the movie skips past countless pitfalls. (The only one it can’t avoid: washed-out digital cinematography. Why does the sky have to look so white?)

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This is also one of the only major Broadway adaptations in recent years to reach the screen without some combination of big, mostly white stars. (Finally, a musical with no room for Meryl Streep!) Heights leads Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, and Leslie Grace aren’t novices—and familiar faces like Jimmy Smits and Miranda himself appear in smaller roles—but the mostly Latinx ensemble doesn’t look like any musical cast of the past 20 years. The movie sees past the perceived need to entice audiences into seeing musicals, advertising instead characters with relatable yet culturally specific struggles. There are no villains beyond the looming if vaguely defined threat of lawmakers who would block the DREAM Act.

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Not much resemblance, then, to the world of Moulin Rouge!, where characters’ off-screen lives are nonexistent and an irredeemable, mustachioed duke scans as a hissable bad guy immediately. But these two disparate movies, 20 years apart, share the kind of radiating love for musicals that the genre needs to sustain itself. The studios that nearly let the art form die are still approaching it gingerly, and the movies that do get made tend to arrive annually, safely, and carefully packaged more than deeply felt. Even during a relative boom, most years see fewer musicals than movies that make direct reference to Iron Man, and now the musicals are getting franchised, too: What is Cher actually doing in the second Mamma Mia if not serving as a Dwayne Johnson–style additive? The Broadway-to-blockbuster pipeline makes sense, because both forms feed on bombast and big plans: Shared-universe blockbusters are fond of plotting out a decade’s worth of sequels, while most Broadway musicals must sell out shows for months and months to turn a profit. The decades of buildup leading to In the Heights feels less like a complex marketing plan than a gradual and necessary shift, just as Moulin Rouge! benefited from an accumulation of a century’s worth of musical and pop history. The results are similar: Musicals that stand alone, yet feel like they’re preparing for a brighter future.

Read all of Slate’s coverage of In the Heights.

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