Elvis the movie is exactly what I would have hoped for from a Baz Luhrmann film, which is an experience that no one else can provide, a messy, chaotic, crazy, sometimes tin-eared yet audacious and immersive kaleidoscope of sight and sound that feels like a theme park ride. As with all Luhrmann films, the first 20 minutes is a rush of tones, characters, and near constant frenetic movement; it’s so much to process before the movie eventually settles down, at least marginally, or the viewer becomes better acclimated to the madcap storytelling style of this mad Aussie. I feel completely certain that people will call Elvis brilliant, and people will deem Elvis to be ridiculous and campy, and I would say it defiantly manages to be all of these identities at once. It is ridiculous, it is campy, it is emotional and sincere, it is, at points, even brilliant, and in a way, this shambolic style perfectly symbolizes Elvis himself, a performer that seems to be anything that the viewer projects onto him, a trailblazer who suffered for his art before becoming an irreplaceable industry and edifice of pop-culture obsession unto himself.
We chart the rise of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) from a young crooner in the 1950s to the best-selling solo artist in recording history. Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) discovers Presley, granted after he’s been a chart-topping local hit in the South, and sees a grand opportunity. With Elvis, there is no limit to where they both can go, and so Parker becomes Elvis’ manager for over twenty years for better and worse, engineering Elvis’ tour of duty in the military to take him away from negative headlines, only for him to meet and marry Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), to locking him into a Vegas headlining gig to erase the mystery man’s heavy debts to the mob. Under Luhrmann’s guidance, you’ll experience it all and then some in the frenzied 160 minutes.
Elvis was many things for many people. He was a smooth crooner, he was an electric live performer, he was the benefactor of being a white vessel for music that was built upon the less heralded work of black performers, he was a victim, he was selfish, he was devoted to his fans and the stage, he was… America. In 2022, I would have asked if contemporary culture even cared about Elvis anymore, a man who died over 40 years ago, and whether we even have a lens to appreciate the man. Was he simply coasting off the hard work of other black performers? Did he groom his eventual bride considering her age upon their meeting? Was Elvis too old fashioned to even be anything other than a musical touchstone that other artists have surpassed? Is he just a joke? Luhrmann does a fine job of re-contextualizing Elvis, what made him unique for his era, and what made him still captivating to watch to this day. Even the archival footage the closes the movie is a reminder of the unmitigated power the man put into his singing.
It wouldn’t be a Luhrmann movie without a narrator, and this time we get the story’s main antagonist as our prism to view Elvis, marking him chiefly as victim. Tom Parker is a cartoon of a character especially as portrayed by Hanks. I love me some Tom Hanks, the man is an American treasure, and I appreciate that the man is definitely going for broke, but I don’t know at all what he was going for with this performance (the makeup does him no favors also). Hanks is fascinating because he is playing a villainous character that is constantly trying to re-frame their villainy, telling his side of the story but being careful, though not that careful, to always have an answer for an accusation. It feels like Hanks has stepped off the wacky Moulin Rouge! stage and everyone else in the movie is playing things completely straight. The entire acting troupe is all playing under one direction, and then there’s Hanks in his fat suit, who is breaking through the fourth wall, compulsively narrating our story, and acting like a loquacious Loony Tunes figure any second away from his own song and dance. His repeated use of the term “snow job” and “snowman,” which he dubbed himself as a showman, is overused to the point of being a verbal crutch, reminiscent of how often Jay Gatsby had to say some variation of “ole sport” in the 2013 movie or else he might irrevocably burst into glitter (or so I assume). It’s such a bizarre performance of wild choices that I can subjectively say it might be Hanks’ worst and yet it also feels like Hanks is giving Luhrmann exactly what he wants. It’s such a bold move to essentially cede your famous biopic to the most ridiculous character to tell from their ridiculous perspective. Imagine I, Tonya being told from Paul Walter Hauser’s character or House of Gucci being told from Jared Leto’s character, and that’s what we have here. I almost kind of love it, and in doing so, we see from the manipulator how he worked his magic to keep financial control over Elvis. Even Elvis’ later years are provided with a perspective that re-frames the man as a victim of a moneymaking machine that wouldn’t stop until it had drained every last drop of blood from this hard-working man.
I think this is smart because, on the surface, Elvis might not be the most complicated person to devote two hours to unpacking his character dimensions. He liked to sing, as it touched something deep inside him, and he wanted to be true to himself, but this framework isn’t any different from any number of famous musician biopics we’ve become more than accustomed to. He dealt with drug addiction and erratic behavior but, again, even this is musical biopic basics. Even his doomed relationship with Priscilla is familiar stuff, as she could rarely compete with the demands and the allure of the stage. I think Luhrmann and his co-writers wisely saw that the best storytelling avenue with Elvis is through the lesser-known Colonel, a bizarre and calculating figure cackling in the shadows. There are significant questions over who this proud huckster really is and what he did to bully and cajole Elvis into his favor. There’s inherent conflict there as well as an angle that I would argue most are unfamiliar with. I didn’t know much about the history of Elvis the man but I knew even less about this would-be Colonel.
The most Luhrmann of sequences is Elvis’ breakthrough live performance where it feels like every woman in attendance is catching a fever of combustible hormonal fury. The way the man shook his hips, moved his body, his gyrations that so many adults felt were dangerously subversive, were part and parcel of the younger Elvis. He really was a born performer, and even says he can’t sing if he isn’t allowed to move how he feels he must with the music. During this crazy sequence, Luhrmann’s camera is trained on the emotional response of the audience experiencing a sensation that cannot be contained, bubbling to the surface into tears, shrieks, and convulsions, and it moves through the crowd like waves. It’s such an enthusiastic experience that plays right into the stylistic and tonal wheelhouse of Luhrmann. It’s also an unsubtle reminder, not that much is subtle in a Luhrmann movie, that part of the man’s appeal was his raw sexual magnetism.
In a modern era, the condemnation of Elvis as a corrupting influence on the youth feels comically quaint, until you remember that all of this was also filtered through a very racist paranoia. Elvis was deemed a danger because he was an accessible introduction to music and culture that was associated with black people. The accusations of Elvis corrupting the youth are all tinged with racial implications about his source of inspiration, never mind that Elvis was also influenced by a religious revivalism. The movie doesn’t say that Elvis was a sham, only succeeding off the work of other esteemed yet unfairly unheralded black artists. With the many onscreen performances, he is clearly talented, and offers his own versions of others’ songs, but he’s also deferential to the people he grew up with and the music he clearly loves and wants to be a part of to the detriment of whatever Tom Parker and his handlers believe is commercially viable. B. B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) even remarks about Elvis’ own privilege when he thinks about bucking politicians demanding that he perform safe songs without his signature dancing (“They’ll arrest me for just crossing the street. You are a famous white boy who makes them too much money.”).
I’ve purposely delayed from discussing the best reason to go see all 160 ungainly minutes, and that is Butler’s glorious performance. The young man simply dissolves into the role and makes you forget you’re watching an actor. The way he captures the cadence, the drawl, the presence of Elvis, and not just his jerky movements, is phenomenal, and then you remember that it’s Butler doing all his own singing as well, and the spell is near complete. He is Elvis. It’s a performance guaranteed to win as many plaudits as awards season has to offer. Through Butler’s performance, a younger generation can understand what all the hubbub was about. The man brings the character to life but he especially brings Elvis the performer to startling life. Even if you hate Luhrmann’s other movies, and he is definitely divisive, and even if you couldn’t care less about Elvis in the year 2022, this movie is well worth watching for the sheer brilliance of Butler alone.
In some ways, Elvis the movie feels like a perfect assignment for director Baz Luhrmann. His unconventional stylistic approach livens up an otherwise conventional rise-and-fall tale, broadening the appeal of Elvis for an audience that might have otherwise shrugged at a movie chronicling the man’s exploits. The subject matter is also the squarest for Luhrmann, which makes it also the safest movie of his career, which is truly saying something considering some of the imaginative highs of this movie. There will be just as many people put off by the excessive, in-your-face style of the movie as drawn in by that Luhrmann razzle dazzle. Watching Elvis feels like you’re watching two movies simultaneously atop one another. Luhrmann can be exhausting even at his best but he’s also one of the few filmmakers that makes watching a movie such a textual experience, where sight and sound are layered in such meaningful and granular details to better immerse the viewer. The way even the sound designs ebbs and flows, braids musical notes and themes and older selections of influential resources as it all composes a wonderful soundscape. Few put this kind of thought into every nanosecond that Luhrmann does, himself a natural showman who cannot help himself. While plenty will wish for restraint, I say, much as others asked for restraint from Elvis’ gyrations, to let Baz be Baz, and he lets Elvis be Elvis to the giddy entertainment of the audience.
Nate’s Grade: B
I did not expect the new Cyrano to be a musical at all, though it is a reprisal of a 2018 stage musical by Erica Schmidt. This fact made the movie even more entertaining and surprising, separating it from the pack of Cyrano de Bergerac adaptations (there is a 1970s Cyrano musical with Christopher Plummer in a Tony Award-winning role). This is an old story and this new version still taps into the potent recesses of unrequited love, social scorn, and the farcical angle that transitions into tragedy. You still understand why audiences from multiple generations come back to this story to laugh and cry anew (it began as a play in 1897 by Edmond Rostand). However, when modern filmmakers are tackling these tried-and-true stories of old, I expect, or at least hope for, something new to justify this latest cinematic addition. It could be an elevated point of view given short shrift before, allowing us new eyes into an old tale. There are plenty of earlier versions that haven’t been as considerate to minority positions. It could be updating or transposing the story to a different setting. It can be simply making it weird. Director Joe Wright’s 2012 Anna Karenina adaptation was an attempt to do something different, with the strange concept that it was taking place on a theatrical stage. I guess because the elites felt so obsessively observed? It didn’t really work, but I admire Wright’s game efforts in trying something different with an oft-told tale. With Cyrano, the story translates well into the realm of a screen musical, and one where Wright wants to work within that unique toolbox, letting the audience get caught in the sweep of the movie magic.
Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf but one of the smartest men alive in 1640 France. He’s unafraid of jousting with pompous actors, pompous aristocratic dandies, and even assassins (their pomposity is up for debate). His true challenge is telling Roxanne (Haley Bennett) that he loves her. This is made even more difficult when Roxanne falls head over heels for Christian (Kevin Harrison Jr.). She seeks out her good friend Cyrano’s help to inquire about the boy’s feelings being reciprocal. Christian does indeed fancy Roxanne except he’s unable to articulate his thoughts. Cyrano agrees to serve as the carrier of his words and write his feelings for him in order to better woo Roxanne. Letter by letter, flowing with poetic verse, Roxanne falls in love with Cyrano’s soul, thinking it belongs to Christian. This is made even more complicated by a fiendish fop, De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), who expects Roxanne to marry him and give herself over to him, body and soul.
The other thing you need to know is that Cyrano is a deeply un-hip musical, and its square-ness is also part of its offbeat charm. This is not 2017’s crowd-pleasing The Greatest Showman. These songs are not manufactured to be pop ditties fit for radio airplay. These are songs written and composed by the members of the band The National, an alt rock band better known for their soulful dirges (the lead singer performed the mournful end credits cover of “The Rains of Castamere” for that infamous Game of Thrones episode). The songs of Cyrano by Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger are not going to be the ones you clap your hands to and sing along in the car with your friends. There are no catchy anthems here, no inspirational melodies to rise to triumphant fist-pumping crescendos. These are songs that are methodical, mournful, and, at points, atonal, like twisting the words and sounds to fit an unnatural shape. However, this is the same appeal of songs by The National, how they make uniquely composed tunes that challenge and break free of standard melody conventions. For some, they will find the songs of Cyrano to be slow and low in energy, too self-serious to the point of parody. But for people willing to take the lyrics and songs on the terms presented, there is a smoldering sense of splendor to them, something unexpected, just like the character of Cyrano. Beauty found in unexpected places.
There is one song in particular that disarmed me with how affecting it was. “Wherever I Fall” isn’t even a song sung by any of the main characters. It’s the refrain of a bunch of otherwise nameless and faceless soldiers, the ones who know they will not survive a suicide march into enemy fire during the Franco-Spanish War. This is the song for the fallen and it’s heart-breaking. We take turns with each man writing one last letter and offering instructions to the carrier, which take on the form of last rites. Each man reflects on their life and their cherished loved ones that will read their letter after their inevitable demise. The entire construction of the song is heavy with emotional weight, but I was surprised how much it got to me. I was tearing up for men who weren’t even featured as characters before, or at least served as extras in other scenes that didn’t draw my attention. Bonus points for making the first soldier Glen Hansard (Once). “Someone to Say” has a sweet and lyrical melody that comes in and out as a bountiful motif, and it’s the romantic tug for our lovers. “Every Letter” and “I Need More” have a thrumming intensity of strings and heartbeat-like percussion that reminded me of the soaring 1990s/early 2000s singer-songwriters like Tori Amos and Dido. As I adjusted to its somber wavelength, the music grew on me. It’s music for a rainy day made into an old-fashioned musical that isn’t trying to score points for being edgy.
Dinklage (I Care a Lot) is an excellent choice for Cyrano. While he might be the weakest singing voice of the cast, Dinklage is definitely the most accomplished actor and proves it again. His character’s inner struggle and true feelings consuming him is wonderfully portrayed by Dinklage. He has his big outbursts, where he inflicts his wit like a sharp-edged weapon, and others where it’s the total of years of frustration from being sidelined and overlooked and discounted, but it’s the quieter moments where Dinklage retreats behind his sad puppy eyes that got me the most. Bennett (The Girl on the Train) has a spark to her that reminds you why Cyrano would fall in love from a distance. Her light at the beginning of the movie threatens to be snuffed out by bad men, and it feels like a real loss. Bennett and Dinklage are also reprising their roles from the stage musical, so their natural chemistry and comfort with the roles improves the experience. Mendelsohn (Captain Marvel) is a pro at playing those officious, lecherous, pathetic roles, and once again he’s on target. His creepy rendition of “What I Deserve” sounds like the skin-crawling mantra for male chauvinism writ large. It might even make you retch.
Wright’s (Darkest Hour, Hanna) direction makes fine use of the big screen space, and his penchant for long takes and sweeping camera movements for verisimilitude enhance the viewing experience by allowing us to better immerse in the world and appreciate the talents of the professionals. It’s a musical that lets you enjoy it being a movie musical, and its editing is judicious without being disorienting. The movie doesn’t feel like its trapped by its stage-bound origins. The lush setting of Italy and its pristine estates adds an extra layer of enjoyment that makes the movie more transporting.
Cyrano is a sneaky movie, one that seems old and new, serious and impish, square and traditional while still making its own stamp on classic literature. Much of your enjoyment factor will likely rest upon your assessment of the music and songs, which is a fair critical point for a musical. I found them to be romantic and gloomy and so achingly serious that I found it to be adorable. The music worked for me, as a moderate fan of The National, but if you cannot click with the songs or accept that everyone is not going to be a trained singer, then your enjoyment level will certainly dip. I found this movie to be a modestly pleasant surprise that won me over by its depressing finale.
Nate’s Grade: B+
2021 has been quite a year for Lin-Manuel Miranda who has provided the musical accompaniment to three movies, Vivo, In the Heights, and now Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical (Miranda also has the live-action Little Mermaid, though that’s 2023). It would be unfair to expect a generation-defining Hamilton-esque masterpiece every time Miranda sets pen to paper; I’d happily settle for even a lesser Moana, as far as quality goes (to be fair, Moana is also brilliant). With Encanto, the musical numbers have interesting tone/melody shifts and the hip-hop syncopation we’re used to from Miranda’s style, but none of them will be able to be hummed by the end credits. They evaporate from memory pretty quickly. They seem on par with Vivo and less than In the Heights. With that being said, I found the remainder of Encanto to be quite charming and emotionally resonant. It’s set in Columbia and follows a magic home to a magic family where at a certain age the children are blessed with a unique magic power with a ceremony and celebration. Except for Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) who was denied a power and is looked at with skepticism by her Abuela, who insists on sticking to their family traditions no matter if her children and grandchildren chafe from her expectations. This is a much more insular and contained musical, almost taking place entirely on the family grounds. Its great quest is much more about repairing family relationships and actually listening to another person rather than making assumptions about their life because of their status. Because of this story design, it leads to plenty of catharsis and reconciliation, and it made me blubber like a baby at points. I bought into the emotional stakes of the family, of Mirabel feeling like an outsider, and the pressure to conform. I enjoyed that near everyone in this extended family gets a chance to share their own perspective. The story felt very empathetic to its supporting players while still remembering to be entertaining and funny. The conclusion feels a bit rushed, with happy endings being doled out rather hastily, but quite satisfying. I found Encanto to be colorful, rich in feeling and theme, and delightful to experience. Also, the animated short with the raccoons beforehand hit me hard too.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Steven Spielberg, now approaching seventy-five years of age, has experienced such rarefied success as a film director that the man can do whatever he wants. It just so happens he wanted to tackle his first big screen musical, something he’s a little late on considering peers like Martin Scorsese (1977’s New York, New York) and Francis Ford Coppola (1982’s One from the Heart) beat him to the musical punch early. The question isn’t why direct a musical at this stage of his glorious career, it’s why direct a remake of 1961’s Best Picture-winning West Side Story? We already have a perfectly good and revered movie version, and there are other musicals that haven’t even gotten their first big shining moment on the silver screen, so why go back to this particular show a second time?
Once again, we’re following the two New York City street gangs, the Jets, who are made up of Italian and Irish white kids, and the Sharks, made up of Puerto Ricans. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is trying to reform his ways after spending a year in prison for gang violence. The Jets are pleading with him to get back involved, to push back against the Sharks encroaching on their territory. He meets Maria (Rachel Ziegler) at a dance and the two fall instantly in love. The problem is that Maria is Puerto Rican, her brother is the leader of the Sharks, and this relationship would be forbidden and dangerous. Tony and Maria plan to run away together and escape the conflicts of this tragic turf war.
I’ll risk musical theater heresy and admit outright that Spielberg’s West Side Story actually improves on the much-hallowed 1961 original in several ways. The most immediate and obvious is that we have Hispanic actors playing Hispanic characters. No regrettable brown face including the actual Hispanic actors this time (it’s just humiliating to watch Rita Moreno, in her Oscar-winning role, have to be darkened up to be “more Puerto Rican”). That’s a pretty good improvement already, though it’s not unexpected; 1961 was also the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released with its notorious Mickey Rooney performance in jaw-dropping yellow face. Granted, jaw-dropping today, not so back then. 1961 was still only a few years removed from John Wayne taping his eyelids back to portray Genghis Khan. This was the unfortunate norm.
Another immediate improvement is the visual dynamism of 60 years of technical filmmaking advancement. I recently re-watched the 1961 original, a film I haven’t watched since probably the 1990s as a teenager, and it’s a relatively good movie but it’s also a good movie of its time, and by that I mean there are limitations to the presentation. One of the most appealing aspects of movie musicals is how they expand upon our humdrum reality, the splashes of color and synchronicity and bold imagination. I’m not saying the movie musicals of the 1960s were particularly lacking, as there are many classics and favorites, but because of filmmaking practicalities and predilections, movies could only go so far at the time. With 60 years of technological advancements, today’s movie musicals, when under the right guidance, can expand the world of song-and-dance fantasy like few of the past. You need only compare the showstopper “America” in both films, the dancing high-point of either film. The original is on a rooftop for its entire duration. The new version is all over the city block, finally culminating on a crossroads and bringing the denizens of the town out in girl power empowerment. It’s such a high-energy and celebratory sequence and the scale and variance really make it feel so much more joyous and exciting. The choreography is also an improvement. Again, not a slight against the 1961 original, but in the ensuing 60 years we’ve also advanced in the technical precision and creativity of dancers. The 2021 West Side Story is impressive top to bottom with the dancing of all the performers, and with Spielberg as director, he wants you to best appreciate their talents while also making the movie as visually dynamic as he can.
Spielberg proves an absolute natural at helming a big movie musical. Nothing against Robert Wise, the 1961 director who helmed plenty of influential Hollywood titles like The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Want to Live, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He was also the editor on Citizen Kane. The man clearly knew how to tell a big screen story across multiple genres. It’s not a shame to say his visual prowess doesn’t quite stack up to a Steven Spielberg, who just happens to be one of the most popular and versatile filmmakers of all time. Spielberg’s camera is much more active than the original movie, and he’s consistently bringing us into the scene, having characters duck in and out of frame, and circling around, always interacting with the world. It makes the movie much more visually immersive and exciting, enlivening an already lively number like the dance hall rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks where each side crowds the edges. The movie operates on a high level of visual pleasure because Spielberg knows exactly how to play to the strengths of the musical genre. Spielberg incorporates the location in each setting and has fun visual flourishes, clearly having given great thought how to visualize every line in each song. The opening of “America” involves women placing clothes on a line, and as the clothes move, it reveals our newest chorus member giving voice to the continuing song. The way the camera moves through the neighborhood to note the encroachment of gentrification. The way he frames the faces of our young lovers. The way he uses shadows as menace. The way he makes every space feel like it’s perfectly utilized for the best shots and edits. Now that Spielberg has proven so adept at handling musicals, somebody please give this man another for our collective benefit.
The top actors are not the leads but two very mesmerizing supporting players. Ariana DeBose, previously seen as one of the ensemble members in 2020’s Hamilton, is pure dynamite as Anita. She explodes with verve and personality and attitude and vibrant life, and the camera loves every second she’s on screen. She gets the bigger emotional arc than Maria. She gets the jubilant song, the aforementioned “America,” and gets her crushing moments of heartache as well. DeBose is phenomenal, and likewise so is Mike Faist (Panic) as the leader of the Jets. Like Anita, this character is brimming with anger and attitude and the movie does a much better job than the 1961 film of presenting him with a point of view that can develop some empathy. Faist is lanky yet so smooth in his movements, and he gets more dancing than just about anyone. He’s balletic in his dancing while still upholding his spiky attitude. Both of these actors are so self-assured in their roles, so vulnerable behind the surface, and so accomplished with their dancing and singing that one wishes the movie would devote more time to both of them.
As for our leads, Ziegler and Elgort (Baby Driver) are good but unexceptional as our naifs in love. Ziegler can sing beautifully and definitely has a natural innocence to her appearance. Her eyes are so large and glassy that she reminded me of an animated character at points. Elgort is solid in his singing but I can’t help but feel that he’s been lapped by his co-stars. There is a comic relief musical number, “Gee Officer Krupke,” where the various Jets have fun imitating the nay-saying adults who hastily cast judgement upon these juvenile delinquents. It’s a silly number about guys goofing around and could easily be the first on the chopping block to be cut for time. However, over the course of this fun diversion, I realized that person-to-person in the Jets crew, the same guys that just appeared as background players to fill out a scene previously, how good every person is, and how much more time I wish they had gotten than Elgort. Part of this is that the romance aspect of West Side Story has always been the weakest part of the show. It’s based upon Romeo and Juliet and tied to those tragic plot events, but when both Maria and Tony are ready to run away and marry one another after a single night, and especially after the fateful rumble where Maria is so astonishingly quick to forgiveness (and horniess), the romance plays so incredulously. As a result, the two lovers are essential to the story but also the most boring characters too.
I think the adaptation by Spielberg screenwriting stalwart Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln) has smartly updated plenty of political elements, amplifying racial tensions but looking at it over a broader scope. Giving Tony a mentor figure in an older woman who runs her drug store shop, played by Moreno, is a great choice, especially as she represents a medium between the two sides as she is Puerto Rican but her deceased husband was white. It’s smart to have someone from the community and so wise to try and impart lessons to Tony, especially as he wants to change for the better. One update from Kushner didn’t quite jibe for me and felt like token-ism. The youngest member of the Jets, a prepubescent pipsqueak, has been replaced with a trans man fighting for membership. I understand the basic character arc is the same, the outsider trying to be accepted by the group, but the consideration of trans acceptance in the 1960s wasn’t exactly enlightening. The other Jets tease and question the gender identity of the trans man, but this perspective never feels well integrated into the play’s prejudicial world. I suppose more could have been done like having the Sharks harass this character, belittling them over their identity, and then the Jets feeling like one of their own had been attacked and in that they would finally be accepted. Except this inclusion would be around the degradation and potential assault of a trans person, which itself is not the best reason to include a trans character if you’re just setting them up for trauma. I don’t know. This character could have easily been removed if this was all there was.
One other aspect I found cumbersome was the creative decision to not include English subtitles during the Spanish-speaking portions of the movie. I cannot understand the artistic rationale for this at all. Sure, Spanish-speaking viewers will be fine, and I could piece enough together with context clues and my rudimentary understanding of like 75 Spanish words, but what are we accomplishing here? It just feels alienating, and it inadvertently likens the viewing experience to what the Jets are going through, feeling like they cannot fully understand their new neighbors. I doubt that Spielberg and company wanted to reinforce the perspective of xenophobia, but purposely removing a key portion of your movie from the majority audience in the U.S. seems so strange to me. If it was just scant conversations or moments, I’d excuse it, but the untitled Spanish accounts for like ten percent of the whole movie. Imagine watching any foreign movie without the subtitles on screen. How much meaning are you able to devise on your own?
West Side Story 2021 is a good time for fans of musical theater and a testament that just because something is old and beloved doesn’t mean it can’t even be improved upon with the right people and goals. Both movies are about the same length, 150 minutes, which seems the de facto standard for movies this holiday season, and you’d have a good time with either. I think the updated version adds more visual creativity, impressive choreography, and remodeled racial and political considerations to make it land better for modern audiences. It might not have been needed but I’m glad all the same we now have two West Side Story movie musicals to cheerfully tap along to.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Netflix’s tick, tick… BOOM! is a cause celebre that has attracted none other than the likes of Lin Manuel-Miranda. This is Miranda’s directorial debut, which Netflix won in a bidding war, and it’s filled to the brim with Broadway legends and theater titans who all want to rally to the cause of bringing alive the other show of Jonathan Larson’s tragically short career. Larson would go on to create the hit musical Rent but died before it opened to the public, succumbing to a sudden aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. He never lived to see the tremendous success of Rent and that legacy is the emotional substance of tick, tick… BOOM!, if you happen to know about it. The story, and consequently the movie, feel like a lob to the insulated world of theater aficionados. The movie is semi-autobiographical about Larson (Andrew Garfield) on the verge of turning 30 in New York City in 1990 without achieving his big artistic dreams. He’s been toiling with a satirical sci-fi musical opus for years and is close to finishing it for a make-or-break presentation. The movie is based on Larson’s one-man show detailing his creative process and being young and hungry in New York in the early 90s. It was moderately successful and paved the way for Rent, but it was further adapted in 2001 into a three-person show, which has expanded even further with the film. The songs, written and composed by Larson, are enjoyable but none of them really stand out. I may have liked the least substantial one the best where Larson sings about his distaste at serving brunch patrons in a parody of Stephen Sondheim’s Sundays in the Park with George. The sequence is also wall-to-wall with Broadway cameos. I could not better emotionally connect with the movie. It hangs with looming tragedy of Larson’s surprise death, only five years away, as he wants to do something great with his life and make artistic waves. I think if you removed that added dramatic irony of tragedy, it’s watching a young artist struggle in the theater scene and hold onto his vision, integrity, and friendships, something we’ve seen but benefits with the verve of perosnality. As a story, it’s fallen into a trap where the struggles can be quite relatable to aspiring creatives and also not specific enough to greatly care about Larson as a character onscreen. Garfield sings well and is perfectly charming. Miranda proves apt with the language of film to translate from the confines of the stage. The entire project feels suffused with admiration and good intentions. tick, tick… BOOM! is a labor of love from many theater professionals. It’s an amusing but emotionally limited musical experience. Still, with this much talent, heart, and good will, it’s worth watching for no other reason to see what Miranda and his theater brethren can do together when trying to celebrate one of their own.
Nate’s Grade: B
What a jubilant, heartwarming, and celebratory musical to lift up your spirits and evoke a few happy tears, especially in the wake of trying to comprehend the mystifying ongoing appeal of another high-profile musical, Dear Evan Hansen. I wish every person chose to watch this Amazon Prime original movie versus that other musical that made me deeply uncomfortable and angry. This is based on the London stage show, and adapted and directed by the original creators, we follow the true-story of a 16-year-old Jamie (Max Harwood) who dreams of embracing his inner drag queen. His conservative father (Ralph Ineson) doesn’t approve and has left him and his working-class mum (Sarah Lancashire) behind to start a new family. Jamie is working on finding his voice and confidence. He comes under the tutelage of an aging former drag queen (Richard E. Grant) who encouraged and educates Jamie in the ways of showbiz and style (“A boy in a dress is someone that can be laughed at, but a drag queen is someone to be feared!”). Right away, I felt like this was what The Prom was aiming for, a big LGBTQ+ musical bursting with empathetic feeling and anthemic empowerment. The musical numbers are fun and frothy when they want to be, taking playful advantage of the expanded visual space of film. However, when the film wants you to feel emotions, it can hit you hard, and I was tearing up as Grant’s character poignantly sings about the heyday of 80/90s drag scene with the AIDS crisis taking its tragic toll. I don’t mean to keep harping on this, but I felt more genuine emotion in that one moment than throughout the entirety of Dear Evan Hansen. The movie is more considerate with its supporting players and finds moments of grace and compassion for just about every player, and with thrumming harmonies and feel-good lyrics. It’s a charming, funny, and definitely worth remembering. Everybody should be talking about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Nate’s Grade: B+
If you’re unfamiliar with Dear Evan Hansen or do not consider yourself among the fandom of the Tony-wining Broadway musical, then I would highly recommend watching a 2009 movie called World’s Greatest Dad, a film I will be referring to later in this review. It’s a smaller indie starring Robin Williams and written and directed by actor-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait. It also has a very similar premise of a character exploiting the grief of others to try and better their own personal standing by fabricating an introspective life for a high school student who recently took their own life. The exception is that World’s Greatest Dad played its heavy content for dark comedy and stinging satire and it never excused the behavior of its lead character as he manipulated the collective sympathies of others for personal gain. As I kept watching Dear Evan Hansen, I kept feeling like someone had attempted to make World’s Greatest Dad but played straight and absent the satire, and that was a very bad decision.
Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school senior and has more anxiety disorders than friends. He starts the school year with cast on his arm, the result of “falling” from a tree. Evan writes motivational letters to himself as a therapeutic exercise for his counselor, but Conner (Colton Ryan) steals the paper at school and freaks out when Evan expresses interest in Conner’s younger sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). Conner’s only two appearances on screen both involve him shoving, yelling, and threatening Evan. Days later, Conner has taken his life and the only letter his family has found was the “Dear Evan Hansen” paper he snatched away. Conner’s parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) are eager to know anything about their emotionally troubled and secretive son. They didn’t know he had any friends let alone one he would compose his suicide note for. Evan doesn’t come clean and instead plays along, happy to provide a false version of their son, one who was bristling with thoughts and compassion he could never properly express. Evan spends more and more time with Zoe, trying to share his own romantic feelings, and getting deeper into his lies.
This was a deeply uncomfortable experience for me, and I don’t quite understand how fans of the theater show were so moved and uplifted and, frankly, entertained. Maybe all this drama plays better on the stage, though I think many of the same issues I would have with the story would be evidently present for the stage productions as well. The main character is presented as lonely and anxious and depressed and longing to make connections, and this is meant to serve as the emotional explanation for why he leaps at a chance to insert himself into another family and manufacture a false identity about their dead son to score with the girl he’s been crushing on from afar for an indeterminate amount of time. Evan Hansen is, quite simply, a monster of a human being. Through tortured coincidence, he is believed to be Connor’s only friend, and Evan can at any point clarify this mistake and explain the truth. But he chooses instead to supply a fictional version of Connor that he feels every member of his family needs to hear to feel better about themselves. Evan justifies his actions as kind lies, as helping those in mourning by telling them what they want to hear, what he feels like they need. It’s not his place to decide what people need to better grieve, and Evan uses his newly favored position as the rare Rosetta Stone to Conner, the keeper of his secret internal life, to manipulate everyone to like him more.
I felt increasingly uncomfortable and upset the longer Dear Evan Hansen progressed with its treacly story, especially as Evan sets his sights on Zoe. It’s not as if over the course of his mounting lies that he organically grew closer to this woman who had been a stranger; he has been crushing on her and uses fake emails written by her brother to express his unrequited feelings for her in a song that DEFINITELY does not feel like it was written from a brother to a sister unless we’re talking like Game of Thrones territory (“There’s nothing like your smile / Sort of subtle and perfect and real”). Both of those scenarios are bad, but one of them is so much worse, and that’s the route Dear Evan Hansen goes. The romance is gross, and I knew that the movie was going to let Evan off the hook by the end. Once the truth, the real truth comes out, no one should want anything to do with this person. He says he meant well but he’s also the kind of guy who literally uses the fake suicide note, which all the characters believe to be legit, as an emotional cudgel to quiet and shame his biggest doubter as she starts to pick apart his lies. When that moment happened, I wanted to strongly yell at the screen, “Dear Evan Hansen, you dearly suck.”
There’s a worthy message buried somewhere in this movie about reaching out to people who are struggling in the shadows, that mental illness can affect anyone, and that often those who look like they live perfect lives on the surface might just be better at hiding their pain. This is best exemplified in the supporting character of Alana (Amandla Stenberg), the school president who has a raft of anxieties that she keeps to herself. Her moments of vulnerability feel the most honest in the entire movie, and she’s trying to allow Conner’s death to reach others who might also be struggling, to inspire and save lives through their fledgling organization, The Conner Project. She’s the one who is putting in the actual work, both physical and emotional labor, and she’s the one who Evan shames with the mistaken suicide note toward the end of the movie. The tone of this movie is amiss from early on, and there’s a jaunty musical number where Evan and his one friend comically write fake emails between Evan and Conner. It’s played so light and breezy that you’ll have to recall this is Evan manufacturing the evidence of his fabrications. Why is this played so flippantly and like we’re in on the goofy gag? It’s mishandled. The good intentions Evan Hansen the movie, much like the potential good intentions of Evan Hansen the character, are clouded and ultimately sabotaged by its misguided solipsistic approach to grief.
And it’s taken me this long to talk about another key hindrance and that’s the casting of Platt in the title role. Platt originated the role on Broadway in 2015, and yes he wouldn’t be the first actor in history playing a high schooler who was clearly older, but they have made a gigantic miscalculation in trying to make Platt appear as a youthful 18-year-old (for the record, he was playing a college student almost a decade ago in 2012’s Pitch Perfect). It hit me immediately that Platt does not look right for this role. Immediately. In the awkward attempts to make him more youthful, they have made him look like a shifty undercover cop at a school (“Are you a cop, dear Evan Hansen? You have to tell me if you’re a cop.”). His pasty skin is so smoothed out as to appear like a shiny mask. His hair is oily, stringy, and looks like a terrible wig, except I have read that it is unfortunately real. Evan Hansen looks like he’s wearing a bad hair piece. Platt’s performance also left me cold. His mannered, affectless delivery gave me the impression of a sterile serial killer with every fifth line. This may sound overly harsh, but the presence of Platt and his performance dooms this movie’s bid for believability. I understand wanting to reach out to the man who left his mark on the role early, but there is a reason that Lin-Manuel Miranda played an older supporting role and not the headstrong young lead for the In the Heights movie adaptation earlier this year. Let the movie be its own thing from the stage show. Then again, there’s a rubbernecking fascination with Platt in place, magnifying all the other sins. If there was going to be a bad movie for Dear Evan Hansen, and I question if a good movie was at all possible, then why not go for broke with misapplied creative decisions that make it worse?
A lone saving grace for this movie is that the music is actually pretty solid. Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, the Oscar-winning team behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman, can craft some catchy melodies with soaring choruses. If you only listen to the music you might come away with a different opinion of this show and movie. However, the context of what these songs are meant to serve in the larger story besmirches the good feelings you may derive from them. I suggest casually listening to the soundtrack and forgetting the icky context of every tune. Julianne Moore, as Evan’s overworked, stressed-out mother, has a nice song toward the very end that feels more honest and pared down than much of the drama allows.
I was re-reading my review of World’s Greatest Dad, an underrated movie that managed to make my top ten of that year. It reads so closely to this movie but also how this story needs to be told: “The movie satirizes grief culture with sharp acuity… Suddenly their fallen peer has transformed from the kid nobody liked into the wounded soul that touched all their lives. Bullies reexamine their behavior, girls that never would have given him the time of day now immortalize Kyle, and the faculty that wanted to expel him now wishes to rename the library in his lasting memory. This warm, fuzzy gauze of grief is Goldthwait’s target. He is satirizing how people turn tragedy into hypocritical attitude shifts. He ridicules the easy revision of history under the guise of collective sympathy. Not every youth is necessarily taken before their time. Not everyone was going to grow up to contribute selflessly to society, making the world a better place to live. Not every youth is deserving of canonization. Some people are just jerks from beginning to end, and Goldthwait proposes we do a disservice when we whitewash reality in the name of kindness and good taste.” That sounds like the better version of Dear Evan Hansen to me, except that’s not exactly the kind of musical that people hug over and buy a T-shirt or hat to adorn on the drive home.
If you’re among the fandom for Dear Evan Hansen, I’m sure you’ll find enough to enjoy with director Stephen Chbosky’s big screen adaptation. I don’t want this to sound condescending, but you’ve likely already built the excuses for the characters and the story and made peace with whatever ethical foibles persist, so whether it’s on the stage or on the screen matters little. For those unfamiliar with the popular stage show, I don’t know what your takeaway will be but I’m positive this is not the best introduction. Again, Dear Evan Hansen is not the first musical to deal with complicated ethical scenarios and with morally compromised characters trying to do their best with the hands that fate has dealt them. Empathy is a powerful tool for storytelling, and that’s what Evan Hansen weaponizes for his own personal gain. I found this movie to be uncomfortable, misguided, and emotionally exploitative just like its hero. If the movie was critical of Evan’s bad behavior, then maybe this would be a different matter. It wants you to understand that Evan is hurting and therefore complicated. Well, Evan Hansen, there’s a lot of people in this world that are struggling with mental health issues, and suicide ideation, but they don’t manipulate and exploit those they deem are most important to them. Sorry Evan, and sorry Dear Evan Hansen, but you can stay waving behind a window for all that I care.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Originally released September 21, 2001:
It must be seen to be believed. A new college crap-fest drinking game has begun. Begin the Glitter midnight shows! A new age is upon us! Here are a few handful of Glitter‘s bon-mots it serves up to its audience:
-Mariah Carey is shown leaving her real mom at age 8 with her kitten. Somewhere through Glitter she has a fight with her boyfriend and takes her cat (yes the very same immortal cat that must have been pushing 20) and leaves.
-She has a fight with said boyfriend and they both try and write a love song to show their remorse. Except they BOTH come up with the EXACT same song word for word, note for note, and NO ONE thinks this is the creepiest thing ever.
-The movie freakin’ ends with Carey’s boyfriend getting shot and killed. Yes, this is truly how the thing ends. Oh, like any of you cared about plot spoilers anyway.
-Da Brat is in it for “comic relief.”
-The movie is inexplicably set in the 1980s for no reason.
Anyone would have to be crazy thinking Glitter ever remotely resembled art. It’s so bad it’s awesome to watch. Bring some friends over, open up some alcohol, and let the fun times begin.
Nate’s Grade: F, like it matters though
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Apologies to Mariah Carey, but it’s impossible for me to think about Glitter without thinking about 9/11. I’m not intending to make some snide, crass joke about Carey’s film debut/vanity project bombing so spectacularly considering the tragic terrorist attack that changed everything occurred the week prior to its release. 9/11 was the seminal event of the twenty-first century and a “where were you on that day?” question for Millennials and older generations. As we approach twenty years since that fateful day, it’s hard not to reminisce and pontificate about tragedy, art, and possible catharsis, and yes, eventually Glitter will factor into this prosaic essay too.
Every person has a story. I was a sophomore in college, walking to the campus center to collect a copy of The New York Times, a subscription had been a requirement of my Political Science 101 class. I grabbed my day’s edition and another student said, “Hey, did you hear? Planes hit the World Trade Center.” I remember it not really processing for me and wondering what he was talking about. I went back to my dorm, turned on the news, and was quickly dumbstruck. I eventually wandered into my friend Amanda Hickey’s dorm and we stared glued at the TV as the towers fell and I remember the news people trying to square what was happening. It wasn’t just the south wall coming down, it was the entire building. As the day continued, and more attacks commenced, I remember one girl shaking saying she had just been to the Trade Center (over six months ago, so not exactly like a near miss), and another girl scared that our Jewish-heavy suburb could be the next target. To be fair, it was an alarming time, and nobody quite knew how many more potential planes were to be hijacked next. Nobody quite knew how many potential targets there would be. The federal buildings across the country were shut down. Parents pulled their kids out of school. We all felt vulnerable. Some of us more than others. I had a friend at school, Gavin, who was from New York and whose mother worked in the Trade Center. He was wrecked trying to get a hold of her, and fortunately she did make it out of the second tower and survived. I remember the numbness and feeling like you were watching a movie, like it wasn’t really happening, it was only special effects. It couldn’t possibly be real.
In the weeks and months to come from 9/11, America was looking for an outlet, looking for some kind of unifying force to heal, and that reluctant recipient ended up being Glitter. The movie was clearly intended to be a vehicle for Carey to stretch herself as an actress. It didn’t turn out that way for her though Carey did a more measured (and less glamorous! they always wanted us to know for publicity) supporting turn later in 2009’s Precious. Glitter was a project Carey had been working towards for years. At the start of 2001, Carey signed a $100-million-dollar contract for five albums for Virgin Records. She left her first husband, the controlling music exec Tommy Mottola, in 1998, left Columbia Records, and felt the pressure to deliver. She was one of the best-selling, most successful artists of the 1990s and was declared Billboard’s Artist of the Decade. From July 2001, Carey began behaving erratically. In promotion on MTV’s Total Request Live, she appeared with an ice cream cart, performed an awkward strip tease, and was shortly after hospitalized for a breakdown. On her website she posted: “I’m trying to understand things in life right now and so I really don’t feel that I should be doing music right now… All I really want is [to] just be me and that’s what I should have done in the first place … I don’t say this much but guess what, I don’t take care of myself.” She did not promote Glitter. The soundtrack was released on… September 11 and was also Carey’s lowest-selling album of her career. The movie was released on September 21 and grossed only four million. In 2002, Virgin bought out her $100-million contract for only $28 million.
With the wounds of 9/11 so fresh, it was easy to pile onto Glitter, the first new Hollywood release, as the bad movie that the nation needed right now to hate watch to feel better about itself. The New York Times said it was “an unintentionally hilarious compendium of time-tested cinematic cliches.” Variety said, “as phony a vehicle as one could concoct for a wannabe movie star.” The Village Voice said, “A heart-wrenching debacle from the start of the gun.” The Miami Herald said, “The kind of movie only 11-year-old girls who dot their I’s with hearts would find bearable.” Roger Ebert said the film lacked joy. The New York Daily News said it was “the worst performance by a pop star in a dramatic role since Madonna suited up for Shanghai Surprise.” The Washington Post said the movie was more a showcase for Carey’s breasts. The film appeared on numerous Worst of the Year lists and was nominated for 6 Razzies including Worst Film, with Carey winning the ignoble Worst Actress Award (over fellow nominees, and future Academy nominees, Penelope Cruz, Charlize Theron, and Angelina Jolie).
My review was among that throng so eager to find an outlet for our pain, a needed distraction from the harsh reality of wall-to-wall news. I gave the movie a failing grade and declared, “It must be seen to be believed. A new college crap-fest drinking game has begun. Begin the Glitter midnight shows! A new age is upon us!” Suffice to say, Glitter never entered the holy circuit of so-bad-it’s-good movies. I’ve never watched it again in the ensuring twenty years, and upon finally coming back to Glitter in 2021, I have concluded that it’s just thoroughly mediocre and dull. It’s not a good movie. It’s a limp retelling of A Star is Born with a weak romance between Carey’s character Billie Frank and her music producer boyfriend Julian who eventually dies, killed by none other than Terrence Howard (Iron Man), playing a scornful competing music producer who demanded money for “leasing” Billie from his employ as a backup singer. It’s just so thoroughly dull. It’s filled with listless songs from Carey, tracks she had reportedly been working on for years beforehand, and the rise to stardom is absent anything engaging. There are a handful of quirks, like the fact that Billie’s cat seems to be immortal and that she and her boyfriend, separated after a fight, both pen the exact same makeup song. These are fleeting moments but only moments of bizarre fascination. The movie is just an earnest, cloying, and altogether boring retelling of a formula you’ve seen in a thousand other dull movies. It’s not even great at being bad. Everything about Glitter is dull, middling, and not worth your time. Freddy Got Fingered was clearly the worst film of 2001 and still resonates as one of the worst films.
So why did everyone delight in ripping apart this mediocre movie from a troubled pop star? Maybe some were looking for a scapegoat for derision, something to feel superior to at a time where political upheaval made many of us feel like we were plummeting and lost. Maybe it was simply a distraction at a point of feeling overwhelmed by the elevated seriousness of the world, of the news, of our post-9/11 reality and its implications. In some way, Glitter was the first step in the process of art as processing for trauma. I’m not being hyperbolic. We needed Glitter.
In the years to come, a question emerged whether American audiences would want to see movies examining 9/11 and the subsequent War in Iraq. In 2006, Paul Greengrass directed a stirring recreation of the events of Flight 93 on 9/11, the one plane that crashed before its intended target, believed to be the U.S. Capitol. It was my top film of 2006, and Greengrass was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards. I remember a conversation where the other person argued it was “too soon” for these kinds of movies. That was the criticism you heard repeated, “too soon,” though that determination will always be different for everyone. Some may find the act of viewership with drama as a therapeutic exercise that can help process complex feelings from trauma. Storytelling can lead people to potential catharsis, a release of heavy emotions, and maybe even a sense of clarity or closure. I remember being an emotional wreck during my 2006 screening and listening to the handful of other people in the theater openly sob. How does one eat a bucket of popcorn to such a movie? The same could be said of a movie about the Holocaust, or slavery, or any of the horrors of history depicted on screen. Storytelling is how we process, learn, and relate to history and its numerous dicey moments. With art, we can possibly achieve catharsis through recognition. Again, not everyone will follow the same therapeutic path. I can completely understand if a person declares they never need to see a movie about the Holocaust, but I would lament that they will miss out on some of cinema’s masterpieces of drama. Art allows us to better know ourselves and to heal and better ourselves under the right context.
If Glitter had come out in 2002, I doubt it would have received the intensity of the critical drubbing it did in the week after 9/11. It’s not a good movie today. It will never be a good movie, but it’s not one of the worst movies of all time, or even of 2001, and the community went overboard because we needed an escape and a collective joke that we could all be amused from amidst the grind of tragedy and tumult. I think even the scathing and sexist critiques of Carey at the time would be pulled back for sensitivity of a woman clearly going through mental health issues. The Razzies nominated Carey’s breasts for Worst Onscreen Pair, a strange and icky joke that I still don’t even know is intended to be defamatory or gross admiration. With twenty years of hindsight, as we approach the anniversary of 9/11, I’ve become less hostile to Glitter. It came out during a time of national psychological need and served a purpose, entertainment even if it was misidentified as so-bad-it’s-good in the zeal to find a powerful escape. The history of Glitter will always be tied to a national tragedy but, oddly enough, its legacy shouldn’t be about Carey’s faulty acting career, or personal troubles, but as the healing nature of art itself. Take that for what it’s worth as you’re doing the math to figure out how old Billie’s cat is.
Re-Review Grade: C-
Do we need another rendition of good ole’ Cinderella, especially only a few years after the Disney live-action version? The new Cinderella starring pop star Camila Cabello is a surprise jukebox musical, and it’s irreverent where it should be and progressive where social critiques are warranted with the source and historical context. In short, it’s a fleeting but fun experience that’s a winning 100 minutes for families with young children and adults who enjoy a peppy, self-referential musical. Written and directed by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect), this movie is packed with singing and dancing to the point that the talking only makes up perhaps twenty percent of the movie. This choice proves to be a durable source of energy and keeps the pacing running smooth. It’s also convenient because we don’t need extra time explaining the setup and character dynamics that we’re all so familiar with at this point thanks to the umpteenth renditions. The mash-up of popular songs kept me amused and guessing what would appear next, and the original songs contributed by Cabello have a nice soaring uplift to them as well as memorable hooks. There’s a “What a Man”/”Seven Nation Army” mashup at a ball that gave me strong Moulin Rouge vibes, especially with all that chaotic sashaying petticoat editing. The movie is also funnier than I expected, with consistent wise-cracking and one-liners that had me laughing and critiques about the patriarchal system from a progressive, feminist perspective. The evil stepmother, played by Idina Menzel (Frozen), is even given her own song detailing her tragic history of being a musical prodigy who had to give it all up in a society that only valued her as marriage material. Even she gets consideration and empathy. The winking feminist criticisms won’t be new to anyone over the age of twelve, but it’s still welcomed even as the film skates over the discordant plot elements to keep things light. The film delivers some bon mots of political thought to go along with its sugary sweetness of a contemporary sing-a-long musical that is easy to digest. Cabello has a natural charisma to her and is surprisingly adept with comedy, able to turn on a dime and deliver a hilarious self-effacing remark. She’s far better at acting than you might believe. If you have no interest in another version of Cinderella, I understand the fatigue with the property. However, this Cinderella understands your fatigue, provides something light and airy, with actors who seem to be legitimately having fun, and it’s got a consistent feminist perspective that chides the prevalent problems with the source material. It works as a family film and even as a diverting jukebox musical for adults whose tastes run a little sweet and a little tart.
Nate’s Grade: B
Weeks ago, I listened to the original Tony Award-winning 2008 Broadway recording for In the Heights, the first major musical by multi-hyphenate artistic virtuoso, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I had never heard the music before and I found that, over the course of a couple hours, little of it stuck with me. There were a handful of tracks where I thought it was nice but nothing grabbed me the way that Hamilton’s soundtrack did from the very start. Because of that musical dip, my expectations lowered slightly for the long-anticipated movie musical of In the Heights. Well, dear reader, let me say what a monumental world of difference seeing the songs in their proper context, with character relationships, and the able performances of the actors can do for making the music come alive. In the Heights is an exuberantly joyous experience, one brimming with energy and good vibes and a warm-hearted welcome that serves as the best argument movie theaters can have to come back and experience the pleasures of the big screen with your friends and family.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is a twenty-something bodega owner in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood and dreaming about returning to his home in the Dominican Republic. His young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) helps him stock the shelves and keep the family business going. We follow the many faces of the neighborhood, like Abuela (Olga Merediz), who has helped raise everyone as a sweetly matronly figure, Nina (Leslie Grace), returning home from her first year at Stanford as the “girl who made something of herself,” Benny (Corey Hawkins) who was in a relationship with Nina and is looking to work his way up as a cab dispatcher, Daniella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) who is moving her popular salon into another neighborhood, and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who dreams of relocating into Manhattan’s fashion district. Usnavi has been nursing a crush over Vanessa for ages, but will he finally make a move before leaving the country for good to return to the Caribbean?
This is such a positive and overwhelmingly optimistic story that it becomes infectious, a pleasing balm to sooth all that ails you. It’s very easy to get swept away in the enthusiasm and energy of the movie, enough so that after the exemplary opening number setting up our characters, our setting, and our relationships and goals, people in my theater actually clapped, and I almost felt like joining them. In the Heights succeeds through how relatable and specific it comes across, lovingly showcasing the diverse population of Washington Heights and the community that feels at home here. It’s built upon the celebration of its specific, Latin-American heritage and culture but the movie is also constructed to be so accessible and welcoming to others to learn and join in. The themes and conflicts of these people have specific touchstones to their community, like the threat of deportation and the encroachment of gentrification taking away their neighborhood, but the inner conflicts like feeling the pressure to succeed and questioning whether your dreams are practical are worries that anyone regardless of ethnic background can relate to. In the Heights finds that sweet spot where it’s reverential to its own cultural background and open for anyone.
Naturally, in a musical, much of the appeal will live or die depending upon the quality of the music and the vitality of the performances. With In the Heights, the music and lyrics are quite good and the presentation is phenomenal. If you’re a fan of Hamilton, and if you have ears I assume you would be, it’s fun to listen to the early seeds that would become the signature sound for Lin-Manuel Miranda. There are similar salsa/merengue melodies and hip-hop-infused syncopations that will be familiar to the legions of Hamilton fans, including some rhymes (“Eyes on the horizon” among others). In many ways it’s like watching a junior thesis project of a genius. The opening number does a fantastic job of table setting as well as bringing the audience into this world and getting us excited for more. Usnavi, and Ramos especially, takes full control of our attention and command of the world with fast-paced delivery and extra charisma. There are more bouncy, humorous tunes like “No Me Diga” set in a salon replete with literal bobbing weaves, more traditional Broadway ballads like “Breathe” about a character expressing her doubts and guilt, and the Cole Porter-esque smooth jazz of our young lovers dancing and declaring their affection for one another like “When the Sun Goes Down.”
But the best moments are the ones that open up the big space and bring the whole community of Washington Heights into the mix. The electricity of the opening number is rekindled in “96,000” where a trip to the local pool turns into a jumping jamboree where everyone dreams about what they would do with a winning lottery ticket sold at Usnavi’s bodega. It allows each character an opportunity to share their dream and what is important to them, providing each person a platform to be more defined. It also taps into that bubbling optimism that permeates the entire movie. The grand finale also has the same effect as characters sing their hearts out about lessons learned and wisdom gained and, thanks to the medium of film, it provides a happy ever after resolution that was unavailable on stage. Miranda is excellent at weaving musical themes to come back into multi-harmonic convergences and crescendos, and it all comes to a rousing and uplifting conclusion.
Another concern about big screen musicals is whether they can translate to the visual landscape of cinema, whether they can escape the trappings of the stage, and In the Heights is exactly how musicals should be filmed. Director John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) got his filmmaking start with the Step Up dance franchise and knows, whatever the film, how to keep things moving swiftly and full of vivacious energy. Even at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, In the Heights doesn’t feel like it has any noticeable down time. The filmmaking choices adapt with the needs and intents of the songs, so when we have a fast-paced multi-part song and dance, the editing adopts this speed, and when we have large ensembles the cinematography widens to take in the expansive group choreography. When things need to slow down and become more intimate, Chu’s camera adopts to this and relies on longer tracking shots and close to medium shots. The pool choreography in “96,000” is splashy fun and lively and very colorful, and the quick visual cues and edits of “In the Heights” incorporates the neighborhood into the music to make New York City feel like a living participant. Chu’s direction takes full advantage of what film can offer but still makes the viewer feel the same intimacy and vibrancy of live theater.
There are two standout movie moments. The first is the song “Paciencia Y Fe” that does so much symbolic heavy lifting about the immigrant experience, discrimination, and the long struggle for personal dignity, that it made me tear up by the end for a character that, only moments before the empathetic expose, was a nominally nice old lady. The other is “When the Sun Goes Down” between Benny and Nina, which begins with them gazing out a fire escape and takes a magical turn into dancing along the walls of their building like Spider-Man. That transitional moment, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, is the only real magical realism in the show, so Chu has been saving it up for his big moment. The dance is beautiful to behold, and the perspective has an Inception-style spin that alters their balance and perspective of what is up. It’s a beautiful movie moment, captured in long takes, and reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s fanciful fantasias.
Ramos (A Star is Born) played John Laurens in the initial stage show of Hamilton, and its filmed production on Disney Plus, and now he gets his own starring vehicle. He is tremendous as Usnavi, convincingly laid back and charming while also being amusingly anxious around his crush. The awkward romantic fumbles are adorable. Ramos’ singing and skill with the flow of rap lyrics is impressive, but he’s also providing a performance first and worrying about the singing second, not that he should be worried on that front. Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) surprised me with the range of his singing, and he’s such a pleasant presence to have along. Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs. the Bronx) is hilarious at times, like when he’s adopting a macho voice to ask Vanessa adult questions, but he can also break your heart like when he reveals his own legal vulnerability. His poolside solo is also a delightful interjection about what his own rap skills comprise. Merediz (Godmothered) is the only holdover from the original stage show and she is so captivating in her signature number that it’s easy to understand why she was nominated for a Tony Award. There are so many amusing and enjoyable supporting characters populated by familiar faces, like the women of the salon (Rent’s Ruben-Vega, Brooklyn 99’s Stephanie Beatriz, and Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco) providing comic relief and a playful attitude, Jimmy Smits as the noble father giving of himself for his daughter’s future, and Miranda and Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson as dueling sweet treat vendors vying for summer supremacy. You’ll enjoy your time in Washington Heights thanks to these fine folks.
It’s unfair to directly compare In the Heights to Hamilton, like looking at an artist’s portfolio and complaining it isn’t quite up to the standards of Da Vinci, but one area where In the Heights does come up short is the depth of its characterization. The film exudes good vibes as it skips over topical and important political issues with an optimism that might, arguably, borderline on naivete. This feels almost like the opposite-minded compliment to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, another tale of a New York City block one very hot day. The characters are kept at a genial level of interest that makes them enough to feel for and root for, but they’re not exactly deep portrayals with complex conflicts. All the characters have a singularly defined personal conflict that can be resolved by the end, and the lessons about learning to listen to others, appreciate family and self, and find home where you feel it are not exactly revolutionary or complex. Again, this stuff works, and I understand why the story needs characters that have lesser complexity and definition to fulfill the different levels of life. It’s just when compared to the depth of the real people of Hamilton where you realize that maybe the colorful characters of Washington Heights are held to a lesser standard and simply not as multi-dimensional.
In the Heights is a joyous experience that I think I’ll enjoy more upon re-watching and listening to the soundtrack over the summer months. I can completely understand why people fell in love with this musical upon its initial release and touring, and I can also acknowledge that it’s clearly an earlier artistic steppingstone to greater later achievements for Miranda. That’s not to take anything away from the pleasures of this particular story, these particular characters, and especially these particular songs. In the Heights is a lively and welcoming musical experience that carries a deep affection for its cultural roots and invitation for others to join that celebration. It’s powerfully optimistic that it’s so easy to be swept away and smile with its charms and uplift. In the Heights takes advantage of its cinematic opportunities, the charisma and energy of the talented cast, and the soaring and lovely melodies and catchy rhymes from Miranda. In the Heights is a great way to kick off a return to a summer season at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A-