By John H. Foote
(***) In Theatres and Streaming
The attacks are coming hard at Lin-Manuel Miranda for his casting choices in this new film, and any Oscar chances are now highly unlikely. Once again, the new madness of political correctness in Hollywood threatens to impact good movies or at the very least make casting films more difficult. I cannot believe what is happening to my beloved film industry. That said, no venting will take place here, I am too tired to vent anymore about things I cannot control. Miranda has already come forward on Twitter thanking his critics for their insight and feedback, but also expressing pride in the work he has done here.
For the record I liked In the Heights very much and, after seeing it a few times, I was convinced it would be an Oscar contender when the nominations are announced early next year. Not anymore. The film’s creators, producer Lin Manuel Miranda and director Jon Chu, are being attacked for the lack of casting of dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in major roles. They are there, but by large in the background, leaving the major roles to lighter skinned Afro-Latinos who might pass for white.
The audience should have no doubt that the major roles are portrayed by Afro-Latino actors, who were selected because they were the best for roles. While I have always believed in accurate representation within films, and clearly there is a miss here in the lack of Black Latinx who in fact make up a large portion of the Washington Heights community, I fear that this unwavering demand for specificity will lead to movie casting becoming more like census reports.
Is the future of film casting to be an exercise in political correctness? Will great young actors who we know can play aged characters no longer get the chance? Will there be a percentage given to the casting director of the number of characters who must be black, Asian, Latino, Indian? If there is a crowd scene in New York City, will every race on the planet be represented because if they are not visible, someone is going to complain? And given the charged climate, is the issue going to be the headline instead of an actual movie review?
Make no mistake, creators such as Miranda and Chu want to get it right. Who would deliberately volunteer for this backlash? But in the end, the debate becomes a dizzying distraction, leaving in the background the fact that In the Heights is a dazzling film, beautifully directed, and an authentic portrayal of the world of Latinos, and Afro-Latinos in New York City. The creators let us experience this community, allowing us to glimpse the colours, the flavours, the passion, the energy and the beauty of that world along with the struggles of the people. But rather than sit back and enjoy the film, some knucklehead sat there counting the number of dark-skinned actors they could see and decided to make that the story. Latino actors were cast in this movie, most not very well known, risks were taken, and those risks pay off in every way.
Are musicals making a comeback?
If they do, I hope they are better films than those that so dominated the first musical age, from the sappy nightmares that were the Shirley Temple films to Hollywood raiding the Broadway stage with a string of musicals through the 50s. The landscape improved with West Side Story, one of the greatest musicals ever made, both on stage and the big screen. Some of the commercially successful offerings such as My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965) were still too “paint by numbers” for me, too sappy and sugary sweet. But then came Cabaret (1972), which in the hands of Bob Fosse, was darkly magnificent. Set in Berlin in 1931, as the Nazis were coming to power under Hitler, the story does not focus on that but their sinister presence hovers like a disease about to wreak havoc. By the end of the film, they are everywhere and their anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is coming to pass. Cabaret won eight Academy Awards, the most any film has ever received without winning Best Picture. That award was rightly reserved for The Godfather, though Fosse bested the gifted Francis Ford Coppola for Best Director Award that year. The two artists would be nominated side by side twice more through the 70s, Coppola winning in 1974 for the astounding The Godfather Part II, while Fosse lost for Lenny, his black and white biography of Lenny Bruce. In 1979 both lost, though there is little doubt today that Coppola should have prevailed for Apocalypse Now, his surrealistic masterwork about the war in Vietnam.
The musical did make a formidable comeback in 1989 when Disney’s The Little Mermaid was released, a virtual template for the new musical, followed by many others including Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Tailor-made for Broadway, each one has been adapted to the stage, and even worse will all be part of this new hell of adapting classic animated Disney works as live action films. Disney knows no shame. For them it is all about MONEY. Art went out the window long ago.
Since 2000, some of the finest musicals coming out of Hollywood have been the wildly original Across the Universe (2007) utilizing Beatles music in a journey through the counterculture of the 60s; Chicago (2002), somehow the Best Picture winner, despite Catherine Zeta Jones throwing out every line and lyric with forced venom and the dreary Richard Gere; Les Miserables (2012), though suffering from an abomination of close ups, was a fine film; The Phantom of the Opera (2004) shone bright with Emmy Rossum onscreen, but was woefully miscast with Gerard Butler as the Phantom; Dreamgirls (2006) was the finest musical of its year bolstered by brilliant work from Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce under the sure hand of Bill Condon; La La Land (2016) likely the best musical of the last 20 years; Into the Woods (2014), a very fine adaptation of the difficult Sondheim Broadway musical directed by Rob Marshall, who brought this musical fantasy to vivid life; the challenging Sweeney Todd (2007) saw the macabre musical in the hands of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, both who rose to the challenge; the Disney musicals Frozen (2014), Moana (2017) and Tangled (2015), along with the franchise Pitch Perfect (2012) and the jukebox musicals, the dreadful Mamma Mia (2008) and its sequel, Rock of Ages (2013) containing a magnificent Tom Cruise performance but little else, and the more recent Yesterday (2019) about a world without the Beatles. Some very good musicals in the last 20 years with more to come, including the inevitable adaptation of Hamilton and Wicked, promises musicals are alive and well.
Now, to In the Heights.
The film is a celebration of dreams, of love, of people achieving despite often insurmountable odds within the Latino and Afro-Latino community known as Washington Heights in the sprawling city of New York. Teeming with Latin culture, it is a study of dreamers hoping for a better life, a better world when they arrive in America. The story is told to a group of children who listen with rapt attention to the tale.
The name Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household handle that everyone in North America now recognizes for his creation of Hamilton, the original, stunning Broadway play about history’s Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States. Using hip hop and rap, utilizing many forms of dance, the musical is an explosion of different art forms on the stage, absolutely stunning young audiences into a newly found appreciation of musicals and history. They leave singing the soundtrack, excited, wondering when the movie is coming out (because of course few can afford to see the Broadway play twice).
Miranda was working on Hamilton as he was creating In the Heights, based obviously on his youth and growing up in Washington Heights in New York. In the Heights was nominated for a whopping 13 Tony Awards and would win Best Musical. It would likely have hit theatres last year had the pandemic not altered the world. It has hit—exploded—into cinemas, and I think the impact could be rather seismic once audiences start going back into cinemas. For those still nervous, In the Heights is streaming as well, sadly to be the norm moving forward in the movie world.
In the Heights is a celebration of movement, dance, song, colour, and wild originality. Not being a fan of musicals, I have now seen it three times and loved every second of each screening, and trust me, that rarely happens with me. What I liked about the film was that, like Hair (1979), it is infectious and filled with unstoppable energy.
The movement is incessant, with few still moments; it just keeps evolving. There is a jubilance to the film that cannot be denied, something bold and brash underneath, driving the narrative and the excitement of the cast. Very much a New York film, focusing on the Latino neighbourhoods of Upper Manhattan, largely in Washington Heights, where you might believe you are in a Latin American city, brimming with its culture, food, colours and that lovely language. Set during the blackout in 2003 that hit the Northeast, the film allows an older man to tell the children sitting around him a story about those who came before them. Suffice to say, it is about a boy and a girl. But it also a history lesson about how these folks arrived in New York City to start a new life.
Here we have a wonderful film bursting with energy, bold, brash, joyous, and brimming with an innate joy for life. How often can we say that about a film? I found myself smiling all the way through it and smiled thinking about it afterwards. Think that happens every day? Think again.
In the Heights is among the best films of the year and will likely stand tall at the end of the year. Steven Spielberg better watch himself while casting for his West Side Story. If he gets it wrong, there will be hell to pay. Miranda has already publicly apologized, which saddens me. Stand by your film, your director. I question the whole damned questioning of the film. I think it is petty and small and undeserved.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.