Film Review: In the Heights
In the Heights
Director: Jon M. Chu
5000 Broadway Productions and Barrio Grrrl! Productions
In Theaters and Streaming on HBO Max: 06.10
I grew up in the theater, which means I’ve seen a lot of musicals and spent a lot of my life among musical-theater people. While I was a pretty big fan in the ’90s, I have to be quite honest in saying that in terms of modern Broadway in the 2000s, I had almost completely written it off as a creatively bereft medium until Lin-Manuel Miranda arrived on the scene. In The Heights, the big-screen adaptation of the musical that gave Miranda the clout to get Hamilton made, has been waiting on the shelves for a year now, generating the kind of hype that can easily lead to disappointment if it comes up short in any way. And it doesn’t.
In The Heights tells the story of a charismatic, young bodega owner, Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos, Hamilton, A Star is Born) in Washington Heights, New York. The scent of cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop, where Usnavi’s shop resides, and the tight-knit residents of the community all feel welcome. These residents include Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, The Place Beyond The Pines, Orange Is The New Black), a matriarchal figure who helped to raise Usnavi; Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Usnavi’s young cousin who helps run the bodega; and the following:
Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Smash) and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), who run the local salon, where Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, Vida), the girl that Usnavi pines for, works and dreams of something more; and Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits, NYPD Blue, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith), who runs the cab company and anxiously awaits the arrival of his daughter Nina (singer/songwriter Leslie Grace in her big-screen debut), who is coming home from her first year at Stanford, and runs into an old flame, Benny (Corey Hawkins, Kong: Skull Island), who still has feelings for her. As Usnavi narrates, the stories and dreams of the members of this community are interwoven into a tapestry of song and dance, of joy, heartache, despair and hope.
Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, GI Joe: Retaliation), producer Miranda and screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the original book for the stage musical, have created a film that combines the best elements of stage and screen in a way that no Broadway adaptation has successfully done since Chicago way back in 2002. In the Heights boasts an authentic New York City feel that puts you right there on the streets but fills them with spectacular choreography and top-quality dancers as far as the eye can see. Chu has also filled it with a cast that gives low-key, believable film performances, but every last one of them also nails the singing in a way that we certainly get from several leads in The Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables, and it stays true to spirit of the material, unlike the gutted, soulless Disney version of Into The Woods. We’re not even going to talk about Cats.
Ramos is a magnificent presence, a chameleonic actor who has become one of my favorites in a short time. Whether he is playing the 9-year-old Phillip Hamilton onstage or on the screen, a flamboyant drag queen in A Star is Born or a morally troubled police detective in Honest Thief, he does so with equal conviction and realism. He’s the kind of consummate professional who is all about the work as a whole and never tries to steal a scene even when he easily could. Watching him play the lead here is an electrifying experience.
For In The Heights, Ramos steps into the role originated by Miranda himself, who appears in the film as “The Piragua Guy,” a hapless street vendor selling frozen treats and who’s consistently outdone by the guy in the “Mr. Softee” truck, who just happens to be played by Chris Jackson, whom you may recognize as George Washington from Hamilton. As far as the rest of the leads, Barrera, Hawkins and Grace are terrific. The legendary Jimmy Smits brings a wonderful mix of humility and stubbornness to the role of Kevin Rosario.
But the two actors who stand out above the rest as the heart and soul of the film are Diaz as Sonny, the charming and lovable young DREAMer sidekick to Usnavi, and Merediz as the wise and venerable Abuela Claudia, whose show-stopping number, “Atención,” may pack the biggest emotional wallop of the summer. These two characters represent the past and future of the LatinX immigrant community in America, and a lot is put on the actor’s shoulders. But they make it appear effortless.
The music is fantastic, with the infectiousness of Miranda’s rhymes and toe-tapping beats making for an intoxicating mix. Chu and cinematographer Alice Brooks (Dance Camp, Home Before Dark) shoot wide, long takes like an old-fashioned musical, putting Christopher Scott’s energetic choreography on full display. The editing by Myron Kerstein has a perfect sense of rhythm that enhances these sequences without getting antsy and cutting away too quickly.
In the Heights is a love letter to the American Dream, one that salutes the melting pot, celebrates what that really means and communicates that the dream is meaningless if it excludes anyone, no matter how tired or poor, or how they got here. It’s the first studio-produced Oscar contender of 2021. It’s an elegant yet down-to-earth piece of heartfelt work that reminds me that when the lights go down in any kind of theatre, as long as there is passion and purpose in what you are about to see and you embrace it with an open heart, magic awaits you.
Make sure to stay until the credits are over for a truly marvelous stinger. In a time when there is so much wrong with the world, I left In The Heights wanting to give Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Ramos each a big hug. I now have a line from Hamilton and running through my head and my heart: How lucky we are to be alive right now. –Patrick Gibbs