image copyrightReutersimage captionLin-Manuel Miranda, pictured at the opening of the Broadway vaccination site earlier this month
In The Heights didn't get off to the most auspicious start when it was released in the US last weekend.
The film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical under-performed at the box office, taking $11m (£7.8m), half of its predicted gross income. Meanwhile, a colourism row was sparked after many viewers complained about the lack of Afro-Latino actors in the film – something creator Lin-Manuel Miranda apologised for earlier this week.
Even before this month's difficulties, the film had to overcome several obstacles. The project was previously attached to the now disgraced Harvey Weinstein, while the eventual release date was delayed by a year due to the pandemic. It hasn't been the easiest of rides.
And yet, many aspects of the film have been widely praised since its release. Critics have described it as a hugely enjoyable film which brings an under-represented community and musical genre to a mainstream audience, a rarity in Hollywood.
Miranda wrote In The Heights two decades ago, when he was still a student. It was first staged in 2005 – with him in the leading role. He would go on to create Hamilton (still his biggest success by far), star in films like Mary Poppins Returns and make his directorial debut with the forthcoming Tick Tick Boom.
But as his first full-length musical, In The Heights kicked off his career.
image copyrightMacall Polayimage captionThe film was shot on location in the Washington Heights neighbourhood in north Manhattan
Set in the Latino community of Washington Heights, the film follows a large cast of local characters, all of whom share their life stories and dreams for the future via a cacophony of catchy musical numbers, which fuse pulsating Latin rhythms with exhausting dance routines.
"I started writing the show when I was 19 years-old, in university," Miranda told The One Show. "And I really wanted to write new roles for Latino actors, and they say, 'write what you know', so I wrote about my neighbourhood.
"And I also wanted to use lots of kind of different music that I love, like the Latin music you would hear if you walked through five blocks of my neighbourhood: salsa, merengue, hip-hop. Washington Heights in the summer is the loudest, most colourful place on earth, so I wanted you to feel that way when you saw our show."
In keeping with the cyclical nature of Hollywood, In The Heights is one of several movie musicals being released this year, alongside West Side Story, Dear Evan Hansen, Cinderella, Everybody's Talking About Jamie and the aforementioned Tick Tick Boom.
(As actor Gideon Glick joked last week: "Honestly, if you're a movie coming out this year and you're not a musical, you should be so embarrassed.")
It's telling that none of these films jumped to streaming services during lockdown, unlike so many others. Perhaps producers felt, correctly, it would be depressing to watch an all-singing, all-dancing musical on a small screen when the films themselves feel so big.
image copyrightWarner Brosimage captionOne of the film's musical numbers, 96,000, was shot in an outdoor swimming pool in Washington Heights
Coming just a month after cinemas reopened in the UK, In The Heights is the first of the year's big screen musical adaptations to be released.
Anthony Ramos plays lead character Usnavi, the owner of a local bodega which sells a winning lottery ticket early in the film. That underpins the narrative, but, to be honest, this is not a plot-driven musical. Instead, the sizeable cast and their respective songs makes it feel more like a plethora of individual mini-storylines stitched together.
The quality of the songs varies. Many of them are simply rapped or sung lines of dialogue (a Miranda trademark), delivered at rapid speed, and therefore don't get stuck in your head. Others, however, are genuine earworms and you may well find Carnaval Del Barrio rattling around your brain for days afterwards.
Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for both the stage and screen adaptation, says taking a theatre production to cinema affords certain freedoms. "I think of the opportunity to juxtapose tremendous vision in the musical numbers with very intimate moments, like being able to whisper a conversation," she says. "The opportunity to get really big but also really up close and personal."
It's true that, away from the confines of the stage, movie adaptations provide the opportunity to make everything more ambitious. Nothing could replicate the magic of a live performance, but the advantages of film include the ability to shoot in real-life locations with real-life backdrops, in this case the uppermost borough of Manhattan.
image copyrightMacall Polayimage captionL-R: Corey Hawkins, Gregory Diaz IV and Anthony Ramos in In The Heights
In The Heights was shot in the summer of 2019, coincidentally around the same time as Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, which was being filmed just a few streets away. "At one point, they were so close to us that their catering truck was in our shot," Heights director Jon M Chu told Empire. "We had to be like, 'Yo Spielberg, move that truck!'"
Chu has also helmed two Step Up movies and the hugely successful Crazy Rich Asians. Directing In The Heights "was stressful as hell", he laughs. "But the work really came in finding this cast. We had to find people who could speak all the languages of the movie. Go from dialogue and acting to movement to music, and express it not as a performance, but with truthfulness."
The cast is admittedly impressive – alongside Ramos is Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smits and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, who takes a supporting role. The reviews of the film have been positive, although some critics acknowledged it was a somewhat sanitised version of an often rough neighbourhood.
"There's plenty of vibrancy and winning charm but a persistent and weird lack of grown-up plausibility," wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. "Of course, that's part of what a musical is, but there is no place for grit in this oyster. It's impossible to object to In the Heights with its almost childlike innocence. But this is a pretty quaint image of street life, whose unrealities probably worked better on stage."
image copyrightReutersimage captionIn The Heights is directed by Jon M Chu, who also helmed Crazy Rich Asians and two of the Step Up movies
"As a collection of interwoven stories set to the pulsing rhythms of everyday barrio life, this In The Heights can feel as dramatically thin and overstretched as its source material admittedly was," said Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times. "But as a musical valentine to a close-knit Latino community, an inspired swirl of hip-hop, Latin pop, salsa and other musical idioms, its pleasures are often glorious, even transporting."
The first 15 minutes of the film are superb, with Usnavi introducing the principal characters one by one, culminating with hundreds of locals dancing in the streets. You'd be hard-pushed to find a stronger opening sequence in cinema this year.
Unfortunately but inevitably, the film cannot sustain this quality and momentum throughout its 2hr 23min run-time. The movie could have benefitted hugely from some editing, because things are dragging by the final act (at least you'd get an interval in the theatre).
But at its best, the film is unparalleled. It excels when its talented cast come together for group numbers like 96,000 – a joyful, pounding song filmed in an outdoor swimming pool, which sees the characters describe what they'd do if they won the lottery.
Ramos was cast in the film after previously working with Miranda in Hamilton. "This movie is about people and a community that keeps going no matter what, no matter what gets thrown at the people in it," he says. "And in the process, they find joy in all of these moments."
"I'm grateful that this movie was shot in Washington Heights," he adds. "We felt the vibrations of the community, we felt the people, riding their motorcycles, music blaring from people's cars, smelling the food coming from the Cuchifrito down the block. I hope that people get excited to hope, and that they feel excited about telling their own stories about where they're from."
image copyrightMacall Polayimage captionThe film has struggled at the box office so far but attracted praise from critics
In The Heights is released in UK cinemas on Friday.