Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 2021. Warner Bros., 5000 Broadway Productions, Likely Story, Scott Sanders Productions. Screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the musical stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. Cinematography by Alice Brooks. Produced by Anthony Bregman, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Mara Jacobs, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Scott Sanders. Music by Alex Lacamoire, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bill Sherman. Production Design by Nelson Coates. Costume Design by Mitchell Travers. Film Editing by Myron Kerstein.
Hot summer days on the island of Manhattan, where a variety of characters sing and dance up a storm about their dreams and their woes in Washington Heights. The central figure is the creatively named Uznavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs a convenience store that he inherited from his immigrant parents and is keeping going until he can make his plans of moving back to the paradise of the Dominican Republic come true. He is in love with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose dream is to own an apartment downtown but who is thwarted by bad credit, while Nina (Leslie Grace) has returned from studying at Stanford and tells her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) that she doesn’t want to go back because of how out of place she feels there. Nina is in love with Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works for her father’s limo company, while young Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) deals with the devastation of not being able to dream about his own post-secondary goals because he is the child of undocumented immigrants. These bright young people are unified by the care they receive from a woman they lovingly call “abuela”, played in the film’s best performance by Olga Merediz, recreating her stage role in this adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical. The gorgeous score is performed by a host of talented singers, none of whom show any weak spots, the lyrics showing off the smooth, storytelling patter that Miranda would come to be internationally recognized for with the later, mammoth success of Hamilton, combined with rich Latin melodies that you could listen to forever. The brightly lit, eye-popping widescreen images turn the musical’s urban jungle setting into an edgy, colourful paradise (meant, likely, to be a direct contradiction to West Side Story’s presenting it as the gateway to hell), a perfect setting for the pulsing rhythms that deliver the story’s themes so effectively that the scenes of straight drama feel redundant and excessive. The plot never really hits as deep as the music does, though, building up to a blackout that is supposed to be the climax of the show but which doesn’t feel significant enough when it happens. The characters are never stereotypes, but they are types and are never as interesting as the people playing them, which leaves a pleasant and enjoyable film that lacks a great deal of the personality that would have poured off the Broadway stage with so much more verve. A trim to the undeserved running time would help improve the energy, but Pulitzer Prize-winning author Quiara Alegría Hudes, author of the musical’s book and the film’s screenwriter, doesn’t trust it all to come across in song and includes a great deal of stilted dialogue in the straight scenes that shows the actors at their most uncomfortable (except Smits, of course, who gets far more awkward when asked to sing or dance). No film version of a Broadway show will ever capture the energy of seeing the energy and talent of performing music live, but you could do far worse than this one.