If Lin-Manuel Miranda’s luscious musical confection, In the Heights, is filled with talented LatinX actors, then it took the particular vision of an Asian-American director to translate the story to the big screen.
The idea of taking the energy from ethnic enclaves in American cities and turning them into musical celebrations goes right back the 1950s with West Side Story. Urban ethnic Americans have their own ways and hopes and dreams, and they evolve their own street styles and lingo.
Director Jon M Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) relishes the colour and movement and gives this film lots of energy. All the cast throw themselves into their roles as one would expect. This was a stage musical in the US a few years back and was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda who, of course, went onto create the world-beating Hamilton.
The film is set in Washington Heights, a Latin quarter of New York. This area is Latinx, but it also has an interesting overlay of African American culture, so amidst the Latin rhythms there are musical numbers which show a hybrid influence of rap and hip hop.
The structure is quite conventional. We follow the various interlinked stories of the protagonists. One girl is already launching herself via a course at an Ivy league university but is worried that her father (played by Jimmy Smits) can’t afford her uni fees. Then there is a young man who dreams of opening a store in his home country. There are also various conventional boy-meets-girl love stories.
The acting and drama elements are predictable, and no one is expecting them to bear too much weight. It is always the weakest elements of these musicals – when we have to fall back into dialogue or exposition – before getting to the next song or dance number.
The dance numbers are frequent and huge, and going from the stage to the screen allows for even more scaling up and complex choreography. There are lots of set pieces, some of them nodding to Hollywood by including an aquatic synched formation that Busby Berkeley would have been proud of. That swimming pool party scene is one of the BIG numbers in the film and fans will love it. It certainly gives the cast a chance to show off their hard bodies and energetic dance moves.
Perhaps more than any other genre, musicals have a self-selecting audience and usually one that is dedicated and committed. That does not mean they are not discerning; far from it. All the elements in the film will be picked over endlessly in social media but, in the end, what carries it through is its joyous sense of life. No one could accuse this film of being anything less than a hundred per cent committed.
Leos Carax finally follows up masterpiece Holy Motors, with this story of a stand up comedian (Adam Driver) and his opera singer wife (Marion Cotillard) and their gifted 2 year old daughter. It's a musical with songs by avant garde pop maestros Ron and Russell Mael (Sparks - who recently had a documentary made about them by Edgar Wright).
Holler!! As cinemas open up in the US, the momentum around the biggest releases is ramping up, with John M. Chu's adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's breakthrough musical (yep, before Hamilton) looking pretty sweet indeed.
Adelaide's own Sia has gone and directed a film, which sees her alter ego Maddie Ziegler play a non-verbal autistic young woman. Kate Hudson, Juliette Lewis (The Other Sister, anyone?), Leslie Odom Jr., Hector Elizondo and Ben Schwarz also star. Anyone concerned that this film may prove very problematic?
America is obviously not a utopia – nowhere is – so David Byrne’s well-established sense of irony is apparent here even in the very title. There are, however, also moments of unselfconscious joy and passion in the course of this doco. Not to mention anger about various contemporary issues.
The original American Utopia was an album, co-written by Byrne and Brian Eno. What we have here is the Broadway show – its season started in late 2019 – which featured songs from the album plus a generous quotient of (mostly earlyish) Talking Heads songs. But to say that there’s a lot more to the show than that would be a huge understatement.
What’s singular about it is that Byrne is accompanied by eleven musicians and dancers, many of them percussionists – and all of them “untethered”, i.e. not plugged in to anything – who leap tirelessly about the stage from beginning to end. And all this is somehow achieved, we are assured, without any use of playback. They and Byrne are, incidentally, all clad in identical grey suits.
There are inspired moments, certainly, best of all being a sublimely beautiful a cappella version of “One Fine Day”. And the audience is clearly enraptured.
Spike Lee’s directorial style is not particularly evident here; the connection is more one of attitude. This is a fairly straightforward recording of a show, spectacular aerial shots, ‘chessboard’ effects and monochromatic lighting notwithstanding. As such, its appeal is simply a question of whether you’re drawn to the music, its predominantly funky treatment and the performance itself. The latter is incredibly well staged, the performers are amazingly tight and seemingly inexhaustible, and Byrne’s patter is sharp and acerbic. But the whole thing is arguably a bit less than the sum of its parts.