The Tony Award Winning Best Musical, from the creator of “Hamilton”, is finally a movie after several starts and stops in the production process. It was due out last year and the pandemic delayed it like a lot of other films. That might be doubly unfortunate because sometimes timing can make a difference in a movies fortunes and I think this one may have missed the mark. The world is an angrier place than it was a year ago, and the generally upbeat tone of this film seems at odds with the cultural climate of the diversity issues that are being discussed now. Rioting and looting to musical numbers is just not the same.
I will admit upfront that this movie and the play were probably not made for me. Hip Hop music can be invigorating but the frequent absence of melody and the near conversational lyrics, don’t pull me in the same way a traditional Broadway showtune does. It feels to me like there is no hook, and the chorus in most of the songs is not memorable enough to be catchy either. That doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it far different from what I expect in a musical and that diminished my enthusiasm for this film.
Another problem I had with the movie is the overproduction in every musical sequence. That sounds like an oxymoron but the film feels like it is trying to top the last sequence every time a new moment occurs. So it is often a bigger crowd, a more elaborate environment, wilder dance moves and bigger emotional bullet points. It gets exhausting. One of my on-line friends quoted a critic who suggested it was like watching a film length Coke commercial. Everything is gracefully shot, swiftly choreographed, but ultimately a bit shallow. The colors and the lighting pop, but not in a stylized way, just in the cheerful way you might try to sell soda with. Director Jon Chu has a talented eye but could use a little restraint at times. The film feels like the writer and the director want every song moment to be a show stopper, and that puts the characters in the background of their own story.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is certainly a talent that can create something compelling. He managed to make the founding fathers hip, and bring attention to American History in a contemporary way. His love story here is a bit problematic., in part because it is so overstuffed. Usnavi loves Vanessa, Benny loves Nina, and Usnavi and Benny both love their neighborhood and want everyone else to do the same. If the story stuck to those characters it might work better, but we have a story about Usnavi’s adopted Grandmother Figure, his cousin, Nina’s Father, Vanessa’s dream, the women at the hair salon, the closing of the car service, the dream of opening a beachfront bar, the kids in the neighborhood, Usnavi’s role as story teller, it just gets exhausting, and it does so over a period of two and a half hours. I don’t want to sound like Emperor Joseph II from “Amadeus”, but “there are just too many notes.”
The movie is well made and performed. Anthony Ramos as the lead is fine, he appears to be experienced with Lin-Manuel Miranda having performed in “Hamilton”, although I first noticed him as the more sympathetic of the two crooked FBI guys in Honest Thief” last year. Except for Jimmy Smits, everyone else in the show was new to me, but they all seem talented, but don’t get as much opportunity to shine as is necessary to make the characters engaging. I liked the movie but not enough.