IN THE HEIGHTS (Movie Review)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony winner for Best Musical hits the big screen in a glorious celebration of American immigrant life.

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some language and suggestive references)
Released: June 10, 2021 in theaters and
streaming on HBO Max
Runtime: 143 minutes
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera,
Leslie Grace, Stephanie Beatriz, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Chris Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Good on-screen representation is about more than pandering to an ethnic culture or checking off a quota list. The best kind of representation dives deep into a specific culture while, ultimately, telling a universal story.

That’s exactly what Lin-Manuel Miranda’s debut musical did back in 2008, and it’s also what director Jon M. Chu has done for two consecutive films now, quickly defining himself as a modern master of capturing culture.

The effervescent mix of joy and pathos that Chu brought to Crazy Rich Asians now fuels his big screen adaptation of Miranda’s pre-Hamilton Tony Award winning Best Musical In The Heights. It’s an anthemic celebration of life.

More specifically, it celebrates the rich flavors of Hispanic-American culture (Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Mexican and more) and how those flavors melt together in the urban pot of New York City, but the dreams and longings they share are, more broadly, deeply rooted (and felt) in the fabric of humanity itself.

Plus, In The Heights is a resonant story about family and the bonds of community. For as cliché as that sounds, it’s also sincere and honest, especially in how dreams can run smack into the wall of life’s harsh, unfair realities and (for these blue-collar minorities) racial disparities.

Heights energetically dramatizes these cultural dynamics within Miranda’s signature milieu: rap and hip-hop music – spiced with Latin, salsa, merengue, and samba styles – that soars through the melodies and harmonies of pop Show Tunes, the bedrock of modern musical theatre.

Set in the dog days of summer in New York City’s Latino Washington Heights district, In The Heights tells the story of various people within a tight-knit community that find themselves at significant crossroads. The ensemble is led by two young couples – Usnavi and Vanessa, Benny and Nina – whose fates are seemingly, hopelessly star-crossed. The opposing tension between their genuine love and different (but aspirational) life goals forms the story’s stakes, each couple’s love drawing them together even as their paths pull them apart.

Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos stars as Usnavi (the role that Miranda originated on the stage), and he imbues the bodega operator with earnest passion and soul-searching reflection. As the other male lead Benny, Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton) exudes the charm of a young Will Smith, and newcomers Melissa Barrera (a young vet of Mexican telenovelas) and Leslie Grace (a popular Latin singer in her acting debut) shine as respective love interests Vanessa and Nina.

What makes these central couples compelling is how much we’re rooting for them to achieve their dreams even as we realize the personal cost those dreams will require – especially Usnavi, who yearns to return to the Dominican Republic to resurrect his late father’s humble business. There’s also Nina, whose ambivalence about returning to Stanford clashes with her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) who insists on making every personal sacrifice to make college possible. As a single parent and struggling entrepreneur, Smits personifies a palpable paternal heart.

The soul of this neighborhood is its matriarch, Abuela Claudia, an older woman with no kids of her own but a mother to all, especially Usnavi who has essentially been raised by her. She’s played by Olga Merediz, the sole original Broadway cast member to reprise her role here, and she does so with equal power.

Her featured song “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)” also marks one of several notable changes from the source material, re-imagined here by the musical’s original book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes. Now, Claudia’s showcase number comes later in the story but, in doing so, allows “Paciencia Y Fe” to have a more profound and poignant impact. It may also be what garners Merediz an Oscar nomination. Her Abuela Claudia is truly a precious force.

Other changes include cutting a few songs from the longer stage version but, while Heights diehards will no doubt miss numbers like Kevin’s “Inútil” or the Act II opener “Sunrise” (I know I did), those new to the show won’t feel as if any beat has been skipped.

More notable, however, are changes that rework beats of the core narrative (some significantly) in ways that, I dare say, actually improve upon the source. Immediately noticeable is the new framing device: Usnavi telling the story of this one fateful summer to four rapt (and adorable) children on a Dominican beach. How that comes around offers a payoff that brings heartwarming chills; it also makes the original ending (which remains intact) feel even more substantial. The arc of the $96,000 lottery ticket is also more ingenious and effective. These two changes are the film’s most inspired evolutions.

Others are more conventional (like Kevin’s wife and Nina’s mother now being deceased) or topical (i.e. leaning into the political issue of Dreamers, Latino young adults who are technically illegal residents despite having grown up in America since they were babies and toddlers).

In terms of pure cinematic spectacle, In The Heights is impressively mounted by Chu and his team, especially for its relatively modest mid-range budget. The visual scope matches the energy and grandeur of Miranda’s addictive music, boasting bravura, breathtaking choreography (often on a massive scale), ranging from a chorus of dancers literally filling the streets to the classical Busby Berkeley styled symmetry of a central sequence at a packed public pool.

If I have a quibble, it’s that the production isn’t consistently fantastical. For the film’s first half, Chu takes a naturalistic approach. Yes, there’s singing and dancing and it’s all big and bold, but it’s staged and conceived realistically. What’s missing is the kind of creative, reality-flouting license that makes musical theatre magical, and that the best film musicals embrace.

Chu initially avoids that sort of license completely, but then begins to add little flourishes (like in the beauty salon) before adding even more as the film unfolds. By the second half, entire numbers are gloriously unabashed in their magical realism, in how they’re lit and staged, elevated by an impressionistic, imaginary abandon.

Abuela Claudia’s “Paciencia Y Fe” immediately comes to mind, as does Benny and Nina’s climactic “When The Sun Goes Down,” a number that truly does (to coin another hit musical that Chu is hired to adapt) defy gravity. It’s certainly a conscious choice by Chu to build towards the fantastical rather than infuse it from the start, but it’s a choice that leads to some missed opportunities for even more awe and wonder early on. (That said, budget constraints may also be a culprit.)

It’s worth stressing how strong the entire ensemble is, with the biggest surprise being relative newcomer Gregory Diaz IV who, as Unsavi’s teenage cousin and bodega employee Sonny, is an absolute scene-stealer without ever trying to be. Heights also offers some fun insider winks along the way, like how Lin-Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson (the original Usnavi and Benny) are pitted against each other in comic camoes, or the clever Hamilton-muzak Easter Egg. Also, stick around for the post-credits bonus.

In The Heights is at its best when it’s at its most theatrical, which is to say it gets better as it goes (even as it starts strong). The second half pays off in ways that the first half doesn’t necessarily promise, with a final stretch that, in all its forms (narratively, musically, and thematically), rises to a fully satisfying and heart-rending emotional crescendo. In The Heights may not convert any curmudgeons to the genre, but musical buffs will find their spirits warmed and lifted and by this ebullient rendering of one of Broadway’s biggest breakthroughs.

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