From In The Heights to West Side Story: Movie musicals are here to save cinema in 2021

·6-min read

Spontaneous outpourings of joy have been all too rare lately, but the long-awaited release of In The Heights, the film adaptation of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first stage hit, is set to change that. Set in the Latino neighbourhood of New York’s Washington Heights, it follows a trio of young people with very different dreams, set against the background of encroaching gentrification. Despite their travails, the prevailing mood is one of glorious optimism.

There’s dancing in the streets, a synchronised swimming number (think along the lines of an Esther Williams routine set in your local lido) and even a tiny musical in-joke for Hamilton fans. It’s a brilliant post (sort of) lockdown tonic. Speaking at the film’s press conference, Anthony Ramos, who plays main character Usnavi, explained the cast wanted “people to walk away from this film being excited about living and being excited about being outside and connecting with one another again… this movie can be this little ball of hope.” Mission accomplished.

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera as Usnavi and Vanessa (AP)
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera as Usnavi and Vanessa (AP)

In The Heights is far from the only all-singing, all-dancing screen spectacular debuting over the next few months - it’s not even the only Lin-Manuel Miranda movie musical primed for release in 2021. Tick, Tick… Boom!, an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical work by Rent writer Jonathan Larson starring Andrew Garfield, is set to land on Netflix before the end of the year, marking Miranda’s feature directorial debut; he has also written songs for Vivo, an animated musical following the exploits of a singing kinkajou - that’s a type of honey bear found in the rainforest - who he will voice, too.

Before that, though, arthouse director Leos Carax will put his own spin on the genre with Annette, a sung-through ‘rock opera’ with music from the band Sparks; starring Adam Driver (whose rendition of ‘Being Alive’ from Company was arguably the most memorable moment from the 2019 film Marriage Story) and Marion Cotillard, it’ll debut at the Cannes Film Festival next month. Then in September, Jennifer Hudson will take on the role of Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin (a stroke of casting genius it’s impossible not to get excited about) in Respect.

Following a series of Covid-induced postponements, the film version of West End sensation Everybody’s Talking About Jamie will finally arrive that same month, followed by the screen adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen (with music by Pasek and Paul, who also wrote songs for The Greatest Showman and La La Land) in October. And there’ll be more singing and dancing on the streets of New York in December, when Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story will high-kick its way into cinemas, heavy with the weight of expectation that comes with re-making one of the best loved movie musicals of all time. There’s plenty more on the horizon, too. In The Heights’ director Jon M. Chu has taken the reins on the long-gestating screen adaptation of Wicked and a film version of Matilda: The Musical (with Emma Thompson as the Trunchbull, no less) is slated for release next Christmas - even short-lived Take That musical The Band is getting a big screen outing under the new title Greatest Days.

These films couldn’t be better timed. After months of doom scrolling through news updates, we’ve never been in greater need of escapism, and perhaps more than any other genre, musicals require us to suspend our disbelief and give ourselves over to what’s happening on screen - in other words, to accept a world where spontaneous outbreaks of co-ordinated song and dance are an accepted form of communication. If you’re OK with that (and I’ll concede that it’s an acquired taste) then watching one can feel like film at its most transporting. And while many movies shot before the pandemic and placed on indefinite hold now feel strangely out of sync with our present moment, musicals’ unabashed lack of realism has ensured that these films still feel fresh (In The Heights was shot over the summer of 2019).

West Side Story lands in cinemas this winter (Photo by Niko Tavernise)
West Side Story lands in cinemas this winter (Photo by Niko Tavernise)

Heightened emotion, supercharged spectacle, a sense of togetherness - these are the movie musical’s calling cards, and have also been severely lacking from our locked down existences, which only amps up the dizzying force of In The Heights’ set piece scenes, with hundreds of dancers moving together as one (the swimming pool extravaganza that accompanies the song 96,000 used 500 extras). After being deprived of closeness by government mandate, too, the musical’s smaller, more intimate moments hit just as hard, especially when seen on a 120 inch screen.

That balance between spectacle and intimacy is where the musical films often get an edge on their stage equivalent. “When I think of my favourite movie musicals, I think of the opportunity to juxtapose tremendous vision in the musical numbers with very intimate moments, being able to whisper a conversation… the opportunity to get really big and also get really up close and personal,” In The Heights’ screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes explains. “I remember developing the screenplay, Jon and I [were] going back and forth a lot on ‘how big can we get? How human can we get?’ Always pushing those extremes to create that dynamism.”

In The Heights boasts showstopping song and dance numbers (AP)
In The Heights boasts showstopping song and dance numbers (AP)

The fact that the release schedules are now flooded with heart-stopping solos and fancy footwork should be good news for an industry badly in need of a success story. After months of postponements and cinema closures, film studios and distributors are counting on crowd pleasers to lure viewers back to the big screen. Often based on existing IP - and therefore boasting a built-in fan base - musicals were dominating the box office before Covid hit. In 2019, Disney singalongs The Lion King, Aladdin and Frozen II were among the year’s top grossing films worldwide; the previous year saw The Greatest Showman, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (that rare thing - a sequel that’s better than the original) make around $400 million each. Musicals, it seems, are an increasingly sure bet for studios (just don’t mention Cats).

There’s historical precedent, too, for musical movies dragging viewers out of the doldrums during difficult times. The genre flourished in the early 30s (think Busby Berkeley’s elaborately choreographed extravaganzas and Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s screen partnership) against the grim backdrop of the Great Depression, when cinema goers sought a temporary escape from the strain of economic uncertainty. World War II and its aftermath was another boom time for musical films, especially at MGM studios, which turned out enduring classics like The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me In St Louis.

More than anything, a good musical feels like a collective explosion of feeling, which is why - despite some studios choosing to release their upcoming efforts on streaming sites - it’s a medium that lends itself so well to cinema-going. It creates a sense of temporary togetherness that has been impossible to replicate in our living rooms over the past year. As Corey Hawkins, who plays Usnavi’s friend Benny in In The Heights, puts it: “It’s just magic… to be back in the [movie] theatre together - that moment when the lights go down and they dim and you can just sit back and be next to somebody who is not from where you’re from, who doesn’t look like how you look but we all connect through that.” Bring it on.

In The Heights is in cinemas from June 18

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