A film review by Craig J. Koban September 27, 2021

IN THE HEIGHTS jjj
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 Gapo

Directed 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.  

Long delayed 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 AmericaChu 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 weighty ideas.   

I did wish, though, that IN THE HEIGHTS was shorter...much shorter.  For all of the remarkable, never-look-back bravado and forward momentum of its early passages, it's hard to ignore that at a watch checking two and a half hours this film is about thirty-plus minutes too long.  IN THE HEIGHTS is like a 100 meter sprinter that explodes out of the gate...only then to sluggishly falter halfway to the finish line...but then finds the drive and tenacity to cross it in rousing fashion.  Not all of the characters are equally well drawn either, which is a predictable side effect of so many personalities all vying for attention on screen.  Perhaps what's most sad about IN THE HEIGHTS is that it bombed so horribly earlier this year when it finally was given a theatrical release light of day after being denied so by COVID.  With the possible exception of Oscar darling pictures like LA LA LAND, the musical genre as of late is not in a period of popular renaissance.  However, IN THE HEIGHTS unequivocally proves that the genre is not dead; stellar examples like it should be embraced - not avoided - by large audiences.  Considering the deeply unsettling times that we all have lived in this past year-plus, maybe what we all need is a little of this film's wide eyed optimism and unapologetically romanticized form of dramatic magic.  

I need more of this...not less...in my life.

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