In the Heights
Musicals have become fairly rare at the movies over the last decade or so. The majority of them are made using animation now, though there is still the occasional live-action entry (the execrable Cats is the most recent example). The rest of 2021 is actually going to see quite a few big-screen musicals, such as Dear Evan Hansen, West Side Story and Sing 2. The genre is getting its 2021 started with the stage adaptation In the Heights (streaming on HBO Max until July 11). It sets a very high bar that is going to be tough for the remainder of this year’s musicals to clear.
Based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2005 stage musical, it tells the story of a community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, looking at the hopes, dreams and daily realities of its mostly Dominican population. It is hard for me to think of a word that describes In the Heights better than “joyous.” Maybe “celebratory?” It is about home (both as a physical place and as an idea) and family (that which we are born into, as well as that which we choose). It is entertaining, full of life and energy, thoroughly appealing and just flat out fun to watch.
Usnavi runs a bodega with the help of his teenage cousin, Sonny. He longs to return to the Dominican Republic to follow in the footsteps of his late father. Usnavi has eyes for Vanessa, who works in a salon, but aspires to be a fashion designer. The other major characters are Nina, back from Stanford and missing her home, her proud father Kevin, the owner of a limo company, and Benny, an employee of Kevin’s who loves Nina. I mention all of these people because their dreams/desires are the plot.
Yeah, some other stuff happens; still, it is Usnavi, Vanessa and Nina’s love for the Heights and the people in it that really matters. This movie has a tremendous sense of location. Part of that is due to the screenplay’s constant focus on the emotions of the characters (specifically, how their emotions are connected to Washington Heights). The other part of that is due to how successfully director Jon M. Chu and his team always make sure the viewer is conscious of the entire community, even during larger scale musical numbers.
The choreography of those numbers is very good. However, I was more impressed by the coordination. There is a large cast (somewhere around a dozen significant characters, plus a whole lot of notable supporting ones) yet, during the bigger production numbers (such as one taking place at a swimming pool), I always felt like I knew where everyone was and exactly what they were thinking/feeling/wanting in that moment. While Usnavi is in the spotlight, I can see Vanessa or Sonny or Benny behind him and, without the performer distracting from the focus of the song, I can tell how that character is reacting to the words they are hearing. It sounds simple, but it would be easy to lose track of a character in a scene that isn’t about them. Chu, screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes and Miranda don’t forget that this story is really about the Washington Heights community during that time, more than the individuals.
While the story is engaging and the songs are highly enjoyable, I have to give a special shout-out to the cast, who wear their hearts on their sleeves, yet never feel inauthentic. Anthony Ramos is fantastic as Usnavi. I first became aware of him through strong supporting turns in A Star is Born and Monsters and Men. Here he shows the charisma and passion needed to carry the movie (even though he doesn’t actually have to). Melissa Barrera could have been a cliché as Vanessa, the love interest who seems to take him, and her home, for granted. Instead, she mines those feelings for more drama than a lot of stories would have allowed for. Leslie Grace, in her debut, is incredibly powerful as Nina. Her dialogue scenes are merely okay (with the exception of a dinner table argument with her father, played by the reliably effective Jimmy Smits) but, when she sings, her voice makes real all of her hopes and fears. She has a song on a balcony with Corey Hawkins (also good as Benny) that made me forget everything happening around it and only care about these two people in that place at that time. The entire cast strengthens the already good material.
In the Heights is what made Lin-Manuel Miranda a name even before he wrote Hamilton. I can see why. It has something to say about Hispanic immigrants in America and does so without ever making it seem like a message. It exudes a love for its people and place (both the Heights and the Dominican Republic) that just made me feel happy. I haven’t seen a movie in a theater since March 10, 2020. I have seen a lot of new releases since then, but none of them made me wish I had seen them on the big-screen more than In the Heights.
4½ out of 5
Anthony Ramos as Usnavi de la Vega
Melissa Barrera as Vanessa
Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny
Leslie Grace as Nina
Jimmy Smits as Kevin Rosario
Corey Hawkins as Benny
Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia
Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela
Stephanie Beatriz as Carla
Dascha Polanco as Cuca
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Piragua Guy
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Screenplay by Quiara Alegria Hudes