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In the Heights (A Movie Review)


In the Heights

Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Marc Anthony, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Ariana Greenblatt, Ariana S. Gomez, Noah Catala, Mateo Gómez, Olivia Perez, Dean Scott Vazquez, Analia Gomez, Christopher Jackson and Patrick Page.

Screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes.

Directed by Jon M. Chu.

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. 143 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Due to delays of major motion picture releases thanks to the COVID epidemic, suddenly we have a logjam of film versions of Broadway musicals – the most examples of the genre to land in about a six-month period in quite a few years. Coming down the line are Six, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Dear Evan Hansen, Cyrano, Tick Tick… Boom and Steven Spielberg’s new take on West Side Story.

First up is the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton breakthrough musical In the Heights. And this film is raising the bar damned high for the new musical class. Not only is it a terrific movie in general – with great music, wonderful atmosphere, fantastic acting and dancing – it is also arguably the best movie musical since Chicago won Best Picture in 2003.

Yes, it’s that good.

You’ll walk out of In the Heights smiling, humming, dancing, and wondering when there will be a touring company of the play passing through your town.

Technically, In the Heights is a musical looking at a couple of potential love stories. More specifically though, it is a love song to a neighborhood and its inhabitants, specifically the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. Yes, the two couples are charming and their stories intriguing, but they are only a small part of the swirl of joy and experience which explodes off the screen.

Miranda is no longer young enough to play the hero of his play – therefore he takes a supporting role as the local piragua (water ice) guy and gives the lead to his Hamilton co-star Anthony Ramos. And Ramos is up to the heavy lifting – charismatic, funny and with a terrific voice which can handle the complicated score which fluctuates from old-school Broadway belting to samba to soul to reggaeton to bossa nova to more current hip-hop beats.

In the Heights a cast full of young talented, lesser-known stars and veteran character and stage actors – only Jimmy Smits is a really well-known face here, except for Miranda and perhaps singer Marc Anthony, but Anthony only has one scene.

The story of In the Heights revolves around the New York blackout of 2003. All of the characters are dreamers – figuratively and some literally, at least one character is an undocumented immigrant relying on the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act to live his American dream.

Ramos plays Usnavi, a young man who runs a little grocery bodega in the neighborhood, but dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to renovate his late father’s bar called El Sueñito (The Little Dream) which has been ravaged by a hurricane. However, beyond his fantasy of an island paradise, Usnavi has a very obvious crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a local girl who works painting nails at the beauty salon. However, Vanessa has her own aspirations, to move downtown and become a fashion designer in the garment district.

Nina (Leslie Grace) is the one who made it out of the Heights, going off to college at Stanford in California. She is looked at as the best of the neighborhood, the one who has made good. Yet when she returns home, she is lonely and floundering in college and wants to drop out. However, she is afraid of disappointing everyone she knows, particularly her father Kevin (played by Smits), who has sold part of his limo service just so he can afford to give her the life she aspires to. The dispatcher at the limo service is Benny (Corey Hawkins), Nina’s ex, who still carries a torch for her and kind of likes the idea of her staying.

The love story forms the spine of In the Heights, but it is the neighbors who are the heart of the story, including Abuela Claudia (played by Olga Merediz, who won a Tony in the Broadway version) the neighborhood matriarch, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s young hip nephew, Kevin, the doting dad, the beauty shop ladies and of course, Miranda’s piragua guy.

It’s always tricky bringing such a confined art form as a play to the big screen, but In the Heights does an astounding job of integrating the New York neighborhood it is celebrating into the action and the musical numbers, seamlessly expanding on the story and yet keeping the intimate joy of the story alive.

In the Heights also obviously has a deep, abiding love of the musical as an art form. Cole Porter and “Take the A Train” are namechecked in the title song. There are also musical numbers which pay tribute to the past, like a pool sequence which feels like something out of an old Esther Williams movie, and a dancing on the walls performance which would do Fred Astaire proud.

I have a feeling that someday, decades from now, that future musicals will be paying tribute to In the Heights.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: June 11, 2021.

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