In the Heights (dir. Jon M. Chu): Film review

Anthony Ramos as Usnavi and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ In the Heights.

As quarantine chugs to an end and the world starts opening up, a lot of us are going to be hankering for something positive to shake us out of our collective hermit’s existence. In the Heights, the musical which first put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map, is a great way to go about getting that pep back in your step. This colorful, energetic tale of the denizens of Washington Heights is as joyous and bright as film musicals can be, and comes complete with a compelling cast of characters, assured direction, and a message of love. 

Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, a young man who runs a bodega with hopes of collecting enough coin to get back to his native Dominican Republic. He left the island long ago, and in fact, remembers very little about it, but his personal refrain is that the years he spent in the DR were the best of his life, and everything since has just been a prelude to his return. New York is in the middle of a heatwave, as indicated by title cards which note not just the temperature, but how many days remain before “the blackout.” The people of Washington Heights are doing their best to stay cool, while each pursuing goals of their own. “Sueñito” is the term, which translates to “little dream.” Be it the designer who wants to make a mark in the fashion industry (Melissa Barrera), the student who wants to be the first in her family to find collegiate success (Leslie Grace), the young man who wishes to own a business (Corey Hawkins), or the Piragua guy who just wants to outsell Mister Softee (Lin-Manuel Miranda), everyone is looking upward. It’s these little dreams that keep us all going, which put fuel in our tank, and which make this diverse roster of characters universally relatable. 

When adapting a stage musical for the screen, a filmmaker has multiple masters to please. The job requires making a strong case for the need to turn a theatrical production into cinema, but to do so without losing what made the stage show a success. One of the main things that separates film from theater is the fact that the director of the latter can’t call cut and start over mid-performance. Both West Side Story and Chicago are great examples of finding the perfect middle ground. Each exists as a movie, but the urgency of a live performance is still very much on screen. At the same time, the tools of cinema elevate the material by finding new angles that cannot be seen from the static placement of an audience member, or by using editing and sound cues to build a mood. It’s an extremely tough line to walk, and to falter a little is to sink the whole thing. Director John M. Chu does a wonderful job bridging the gap between the two mediums. Sometimes animations are rotoscoped over a dance number, other times an entire frame rotates sideways to turn the exterior of an apartment building into a dance floor. In one showstopping number, in which Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) looks back on the entirety of her life, the tricks of stagecraft morph a modern subway into one from the past, complete with clever lighting, slick costume changes, and a puddle of tears forming at my feet. To be fair, there are a handful of moments where the needs of theater and cinema noticeably clash, but these are few and far between, and the energy is so rollicking and positive that they don’t ever have a chance to derail the momentum of the film. 

The screenplay (and original book), by Philadelphia’s own Quiara Alegriá Hudes is simply wonderful. Even with such a stacked cast of characters, there’s no shortage of motivation. This diverse group of dreamers all have a story, and each story has social resonance. We get the information of multiple generations of family for each of them without dipping into boring exposition. It all comes naturally. The themes, too, are organically presented, rather than being told through didactic finger-wagging as is often the case with progressive-minded cinema. 

The only real complaint I have with In the Heights comes from the source material itself. The songs, while excellent in the moment, fade from memory the second they end. I could not relay to you a single melody or lyric, and I couldn’t have done it immediately after the movie ended either. Not one song rises above the rest as the standout, and none have any sort of staying power. I tapped my toes through the whole thing, but found myself instead humming Hamilton tunes on my walk home.

But even though the songs fade from memory, the joyous feeling one gets watching In the Heights is indelible. Broadway may not be opening until the fall, but you can easily scratch that itch before then on the big screen. Oh, and stay through the credits. There’s a thing. 

Scheduled for release in cinemas and on HBO Max on June 11, 2021.

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