IN THE HEIGHTS ½
2021, PG-13, 143 mins.
Anthony Ramos as Usnavi de la Vega / Melissa Barrera as Vanessa / Corey Hawkins as Benny / Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario / Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia / Jimmy Smits as Kevin Rosario / Lin-Manuel Miranda as Piragüero / Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela / Stephanie Beatriz as Carla / Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny / Dascha Polanco as Cuca / Marc Anthony as GapoDirected by Jon M. Chu / Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on his musical stage play
HAMILTON may have cemented its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in the public eye, but it was his other stage musical that came out before it with IN THE HEIGHTS that put him on the map.
because of our current and ongoing pandemic woes, this Jon M. Chu (CRAZY
RICH ASIANS) directed silver screen adaptation of Miranda's
critically and audience adored 2002 work is an undeniably vibrant,
colorful, and toe tapping song and dance delight.
Beyond its musical trappings, IN THE HEIGHTS largely succeeds
because of its densely layered thematic undercurrents: It speaks towards
the power of community kinship on top of celebrating culture and potently
reflecting the immigrant experience in America.
Chu crafts an energetic visual dynamo here, to be sure, and it
often made me hearken back to the types of glitzy, old school Technicolor
musicals that simply aren't a dime a dozen anymore.
That, and IN THE HEIGHTS has legitimate things to say about the
Hispanic and Latino experience in Upper Manhattan, which gives the film an
added modern flavor on top of its nostalgic genre trappings.
The story of IN
THE HEIGHTS mostly transpires over the course of many days before
"The Blackout" that crippled New York during one scorchingly hot
summer. The narrator and one
of the key players in the narrative is Usnavi de la Vega (a wonderful
Anthony Ramos), who appears to be recounting a story from the past to his
kids, beginning the tale by lovingly describing his home of Washington
Heights ("The streets were made for music").
A bodega owner by trade, Usnavi slaves away daily to make ends meet
in the Heights, who's frequently joined and assisted by his cousin in
Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), but working at his convenience store is soul
crushing. What Usnavi really
yearns for is to make a triumphant return to the Dominican Republic and
reopen a business that was left behind by his dead father, with the only
thing holding him back being the crushing financial burden.
While trying to secure the necessary dough to get out of New York,
Usnavi lives with and cares for Claudia (Olga Merediz), an elderly Cuban
woman that helped to raise him.
One thing that
definitely perks Usnavi's spirits is a local bombshell beauty that he
pines for in Vanessa (the luminous Melissa Barrera), who has lofty
aspirations of her own to become a big city fashion designer and finally
leave her lowly gig at a local Heights salon (like Usnavi, multiple
roadblocks - mostly monetary - impede her progress). From here the film springboards into multiple other subplots
involving a cross section of other community players, like Nina (Leslie
Grace), a prestigious Stanford freshman that's returned home to visit her
dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and has to break some rather terrible news about
her time there, which deeply troubles him seeing as he put every nickel
into her education and can't bare the thought of her not returning.
Then there's a cab dispatcher, Benny (Corey Hawkins), that's deeply
in love with Nina and is facing the burden of balancing his devotion to
her and his responsibilities to his vocation.
Baring down on all of these players is the threat of the impending
blackout to come (relayed through title cards that list the number of days
left before it hits), the blisteringly heat of a record setting summer,
and the nagging fact that their whole area is at risk of being gentrified
and erasing decades worth of cultural identity.
IN THE HEIGHTS is
a remarkably nimble footed musical early on, which is bolstered by the
swiftly assured editing of Myron Kerstein and some smooth sailing
camerawork that gives the open section's music numbers an instant pulse of
intrigue. Beyond that, Chu
does a superb job of establishing the uniquely diverse geography of
Washington Heights, which has both a gritty and grounded look while
maintaining a breezy, storybook aura and feel. There's an untapped level of pure energy that typifies the
film, which becomes more electrifyingly inviting as the story progresses
from one beat to the next. You
gain an immediate sense of the painstaking joy that Chu and company have
in translating Miranda's multiple Tony Award winning stage musical to this
larger cinematic canvas (the creator himself even cameos in the film as a
street vender selling cold treats, and he even manages to belt out a few
lyrics himself). It's easy to see how astoundingly well IN THE HEIGHTS works
by transporting and immersing viewers in its dense tapestry of a
multicultural rich area of the Big Apple that we perhaps don't really get
to see too much in movies about the famed city.
And this movie loves its characters, who strive everyday to
make their voices felt while trying to cement their footprints in a city
that seems to want to push them all to the marginalized sidelines.
But, yes, what
about the music? That's what, well, musicals live off of and breathe on, am I
right? My litmus test for
great movie musicals is in just how memorable the songs and dance numbers
are in it (if you find yourself humming the tunes a day later in the
shower after screening said musical then it has succeeded).
By and large, IN THE HEIGHTS is a sensational shower humming
musical, and Chu engineers some truly remarkable sequences that allow his
insanely talented vocal cast break through and show what they're made of.
There's the wickedly catchy titular rap heavy number that opens the
film and introduces us to its starry eyed souls, but perhaps the film's
most stunningly magical moment involves its epically staged, Busby
Berkeley inspired "96,000", which showcases most of the key cast
- alongside hundreds of extras - engaging in rhythmic synchronized
swimming and boisterous dancing that has a gorgeous dreamlike vitality
that's impossible to shake. Beyond that masterfully dazzling sequence, IN THE HEIGHTS
even has time for more intimate - but still eye popping - numbers, like a
truly mesmerizing one involving two lovers defying the rules of gravity
like something out of INCEPTION by
swinging their way sideways up the side of a building.
IN THE HEIGHTS has a confidence in its visual splendor that really
helps cement it apart from other genre wannabes.
And, yes, the
film has a soul and something to say that many viewers will identify with,
like the socio-economic (and racialized) barriers to the American dream
that some of its characters find themselves hazardously wading through.
The core idea of perusing one's dream is paramount in the story
arcs of Usnavi and Nina (played with so much authentic tenderness and
unending charm by Ramos and Barrera), who both yearn to leave their
current homes to find new ones, even when those places constantly feel
unattainably out of reach for them. What's
interesting at play here with IN THE HEIGHTS is its ironic commentary
about how one's real home is the tangible one where you are right now, not
the one that's reached a mythic stature in your dreams.
Most crucially, this is a rare breed of movie musical - or movie in
general - that hones in on and champions working class American immigrants
and shows us a portal into their worldview, which is sometimes punctuated
by hard hitting realities involving social injustices.
But this further ties into the inseparable bonds that communities
forge as not only a coping mechanism, but to also let future generations
thrive. That place to thrive is
Washington Heights. It's
great to see a musical that's simultaneously an exemplary piece of
ethereal escapism and a socially conscious drama that tackles
I need more of this...not less...in my life.