Film Review – In the Heights
In the Heights
In the Heights (2021) is a rapturous, joyful musical fantasy that feels as though it were made for this exact moment. The brainchild of one Lin-Manuel Miranda, this adaptation of the hit Broadway show centers on the north Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. A large Hispanic/LatinX community populate the area, with characters striving for their own “sueñito” or “little dream.” It is a place brimming with life and culture, finding a balance between maintaining its heritage and adjusting to new and changing times. All of this is wrapped up with some of the liveliest musical sequences we’ve seen in a long time.
The pacing is so fast that the two-and-a-half hour runtime flies by. In fact, there might actually be too much drive pushing the narrative forward. Every scene – musical or otherwise – has such momentum that it’s damn near exhausting. The music and lyrics (written by Miranda) are a blend of hip hop, traditional showtunes, and Latin rhythms – all having a thumping, head-bobbing catchiness. Even the more melancholic sequences bounce with energy. Miranda’s other smash-hit musical, Hamilton (2020), operated between peaks and valleys, ebbing and flowing between show stopping numbers and moments of quiet contemplation. That’s not the case here – everything moves at a high level.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) guides us as the narrator. He is a young man working in a convenience store with his even younger cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). Usnavi dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, where he believes he had spent the best days of his life. While he saves his every penny for the trip, we learn that Usnavi has romantic feelings for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Vanessa wants to move downtown to be a fashion designer but finds the journey harder than she thought. Benny (Corey Hawkins) is Usnavi’s best friend and works as a dispatcher for a limo company. Benny is in love with Nina (Leslie Grace), who has returned from Stanford. Nina is torn between the white-dominated world of college and the neighborhood she grew up in. This does not please Nina’s father (Jimmy Smits), who believes his success is predicated on her finishing school.
These are our main characters, but In the Heights is much more about the community and culture they live in. There is an emphasis on the people – the elders, the youth, those at the playground, beauty salons, and restaurants. Director Jon M. Chu (along with cinematographer Alice Brooks) will often turn the camera to focus on background players, and how each and every one of them play a part in the overall picture. One key plot point involves the revelation that someone in the neighborhood has won the lottery. During the musical sequence (taking place at the local pool), all of the characters take turns talking about what they would do if they were the winner. The message is clear: everyone has their own personal dream. In a city as large as New York, a dream is what makes each person unique.
Jon M. Chu is no stranger to musicals. His work in the Step Up series shows that he can handle complicated song and dance numbers. Here we see him at his most free floating. It’s as though he is operating unrestrained, filling the frame with an overabundance of creativity. There are times where the editing (Myron Kerstein) becomes hyperactive, cutting so often that it disrupts our view of the choreography. But when Chu and his team are on their game, the movie flies.
Chu handles the “magical realism” tastefully, so that when Usnavi spins a sewer plate with his foot like a turntable, it somehow makes sense. He utilizes dream logic to combine stage show elements with a cinematic twist. In the “Alabanza” number, we watch the elder Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) take a nostalgic dive into her past with the help of the subway system. The sequence is moving and heartbreaking. And in the “When the Sun Goes Down” number, Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace dance on the side of their building under a golden sunset. The scene – beautiful and romantic in equal measure – will remind many of Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951).
This is the kind of musical that has such an earnestness that the major problems of the world feel small. The screenplay (Quiara Alegría Hudes) touches on topics such as gentrification, racism, and immigration, but none of them hit with significant impact. We see a scene featuring a DACA protest, but it begins and ends quickly and is never heard from again. Miranda plays a small role as a street vendor selling piragua (a shaved ice dessert). He has a song where he talks about other, bigger vendors stealing his business, but the moment is fleeting and doesn’t add to the main narrative. We get title cards letting us know how close we are to a city-wide blackout (“2 Days Before the Blackout,” “3 Weeks Since the Blackout,” etc.). I suppose the blackout and how the community reacts to it are meant to signify them calling out for recognition and respect, but isn’t that what the whole movie is striving for to begin with?
And yet, those gripes pale in comparison to the delight of watching a production having fun and wanting you to join in. In the Heights is a simple and sweet story about people embracing their identities, fueled with incredible music, and headed by star making performances. In a time where the Covid-19 pandemic is starting to get under control in America and everything seems to finally be reopening, here is a movie that invites us to come back, join together and reach out for a little slice of happiness again.