Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hotly-anticipated ‘In the Heights’ is just the first in a string of feelgood films set to woo weary post-pandemic cinema audiences
When gaunt punters streamed into American cinemas in the early 1930s, they needed distracting from the awful hardships imposed by the Great Depression.
They found it in the gloriously excessive dance routines of Busby Berkeley, and in the magical musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Films like Top Hat and Flying Down to Rio offered a glorious escape from food lines and mass unemployment.
Might musicals be just the ticket for the post-Covid moviegoer? The genre is experiencing a big revival at the moment and American critics are very excited about the imminent arrival of In the Heights, an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical.
Miranda can do no wrong at the minute and his adaptation of his stage show Hamilton became the most streamed movie of 2020, proving that pandemic-weary viewers just can’t get enough of apparently sane people spontaneously breaking into song.
In the Heights certainly has all the hallmarks of a major hit. The musical that made Miranda’s name when first staged on Broadway back in 2008, it’s set in the largely Dominican New York neighbourhood of Washington Heights, whose residents are sent half mad by the news that a winning lottery ticket has been sold in the local shop.
The songs and dancing are marvellous, embellished by Miranda’s heady mix of hip-hop, rap and salsa, and early reviews are very good.
Watching massed groups of colourfully dressed people tap their way across the screen might be just the thing to tempt wary, mask-wearing punters back into the multiplex, and there are lots more movie musicals on the way in 2021, from a version of the Broadway hit Wicked to James Corden’s all-singing Cinderella and Steven Spielberg’s remake of 50s classic West Side Story.
In cinematic terms, this enthusiasm for all things song and dance is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just 10 years or so ago, showing a musical was a pretty efficient way of emptying a cinema.
Mass enthusiasm for them had disappeared at the end of the 1950s and though there was the odd hit in the decades that followed, audiences grew unused to the idea that actors might at any time start warbling about their troubles or, worse still, about being in love.
Musicals were embarrassing and even such apparently cast-iron stage adaptations as Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables (2012) didn’t exactly light up the box office.
The first sign that things were changing came in 2016 when Damien Chazelle released La La Land. Set in Hollywood and a kind of coy tribute to golden-age musicals, it starred Emma Stone as an aspiring actress who falls in love with a fussy jazz musician (Ryan Gosling).
It won lots of Oscars, but La La Land was amateurish, and deliberately so — its feyness being part of its charm. Stone and Gosling are no great shakes at singing and dancing, and would have been laughed out of Hollywood by MGM supremo L.B. Mayer.
In 2021, that kind of charmingly gauche musical won’t do: we need jazz hands and plenty of them, and help is on the way. In the Heights will be followed during the summer by Cinderella, Kay Cannon and James Corden’s musical retelling of Charles Perrault’s much loved fairy tale.
Cuban pop star Camila Cabello will play Cinders, whose life of domestic drudgery is transformed by the appearance of a fairy godmother or, in this telling, fairy godperson, played by Billy Porter.
Singing powerhouse Idina Menzel will give it socks as the wicked stepmother and though Amazon Prime recently bought the finished film, it should still get a cinema release.
Due out later in the summer, Everybody’s Talking about Jamie is based on a hit West End play and features a bravura performance from Richard E. Grant that has awards written all over it.
He plays Hugo, a former drag artist mentoring a 16-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a famous drag queen. It sounds like Billy Elliot meets Lily Savage and is full of songs and general joie de vivre.
Leos Carax’s Annette is an intriguing prospect. A rock opera based on the music of 70s legends Sparks, it stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as showbiz parents who bear a daughter with a very special talent.
Also due out this year, Dear Evan Hansen is adapted from the Broadway musical, with the exceptional Ben Platt playing an anxious teenager who becomes accidentally implicated in the suicide of a classmate.
And just in case you thought Lin-Manuel Miranda wasn’t busy enough, he’s currently co-writing new songs for a live action version of the classic Disney musical animation, The Little Mermaid, and has finished directing an adaptation of the quirky Broadway musical Tick, Tick… Boom!, which Netflix will stream later this year.
Adapting Broadway shows for film is all the rage and movie versions of Wicked, A Chorus Line and Sunset Boulevard are in various stages of development. Sunset Boulevard? Isn’t that already a film? Never mind.
Also due for release at Christmas is Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. An exciting young cast and the wonderful songs of Stephen Sondheim should make this a treat for musical-lovers, though of course Spielberg’s efforts will be judged against those of Robert Wise’s Oscar-winning 1961 adaptation of the original stage musical, which brought the passion of Romeo and Juliet to the projects of New York City.
That film seemed about to usher in a bold new era for the musical, which would cast aside the lush romances of old in favour more socially relevant films.
Instead, the movie musical tanked through the 60s and fell disastrously out of fashion. And despite the odd hit — Cabaret, Grease and All That Jazz in the 70s, Chicago in the early 2000s — the movie musical had become outdated, til now.
As cinemas across the globe reopen, audiences are looking for uplifting films to banish the monotonous gloom of lockdown. Musicals like these might just fit the bill. But when musicals go wrong, they do so spectacularly — as Cats duly proved.
Based on a hugely successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, directed by seasoned hand Tom Hooper, boasting a $100m budget and a host of stars, it seemed like a sure-fire hit. Then, in 2019, it got released.
Wearing ghastly figure-hugging cat suits, cast members, including James Corden, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson and Jennifer Hudson, seemed decidedly circumspect as they warbled their way through a strange and nonsensical film detailing the adventures of various flea-ridden alley cats.
Most ill-treated of all was Dame Judi Dench, cast as the sage and venerable Old Deuteronomy, but wearing what looked like a bathroom mat on her back and resembling reanimated road kill.
A bad musical leaves you with nowhere to hide — and forces you to sing about it.