Synopsis: Lights up on Washington Heights, a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big.
Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits
Director: Jon M. Chu
Running Length: 143 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: It’s been good to get out of the house and see several movies in the theaters these past weeks. I didn’t think I’d be able to say that as recently as a few months ago but the experience has been a welcoming one. As much as I love going to the movies and the feeling of getting the rush of excitement as the lights go down before any expectations can be met or missed, some small part of me aches for the moments of magic that are rarely found amidst the CGI created worlds of fiction. I used to chalk it up to childhood nostalgia for films of my youth setting an unrealistic bar no modern film could ever hope to meet, but every now and then a movie, a performance, a scene, a look, just sends this wave of, and forgive me if this is schmaltzy, serenity over me and I recognize it as a familiar emotion I felt when I was much younger.
The film version of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical In the Heights was not the first movie I saw in theaters since they reopened and after I was fully vaccinated. It was not a stage show I was a fan of and my coolness toward it was a chief reason I avoided Lin-Manuel Miranda’s next show, Hamilton (ever heard of it?), believing I’d again leave the theater unaffected after the massive hype. (Of course, like the rest of the world I’m a Hamil-fan) Also, I’ll be totally honest and say that Miranda himself, pure genius and goodhearted soul though he is, had failed to win me over after all the years of his shameless mugging at awards shows. As a fan of musicals and, of course, film musicals I was looking forward to In the Heights but it wasn’t one I was super busting down the theater door to get to. So how is it that the feeling I described above, the movie magic moment, hit me like a ton of bricks before anyone had spoken a word?
Yes, it’s true. The moment the Warner Brothers logo came onscreen and we see a first glimpse of NY’s Washington Heights neighborhood through the lens of cinematographer Alice Brooks (Jem and the Holograms), I felt my face flush and eyes tingle with the threat of, could it be?, actual tears. My shoulders relaxed down and my stomach flipped over. What exactly was happening here? While I can attribute some of my emotions to just being a big softie in general (don’t spread that around), there was something almost imperceptibly moving about the film in its simple opening moments. That feeling remained for the rest of this captivating modern musical. It’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s joyous, and it’s a perfect film to see on the big screen if you can make it happen.
Taking over the role Miranda created and played onstage, Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born) is Usnavi, the owner of a corner bodega in an ordinary neighborhood of Washington Heights with dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic and restoring the bar his father owned before immigrating to the U.S. With no immediate family ties to keep him there, all he worries about is the elderly woman who raised him, “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz, The Place Beyond the Pines), and his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, Vampires vs. the Bronx) who lives with his troubled father (an almost unrecognizable Marc Anthony). Just as he makes up his mind to head back to the D.R. and bring the two with him, the chance of a relationship with hairdresser Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) whom he loved from afar for years puts all of that into question.
Over the course of several days, Usnavi is the nucleus around which numerous characters and stories circle. We don’t see the world of Washington Heights totally through his eyes but he is the driving force of the piece, and his storyline is pivotal in the lives of many of his neighbors and close friends. Nina (Leslie Grace), the daughter of the proprietor of a family-run cab company, has returned home from her first year at an Ivy League college with doubts on returning. As she rekindles a romance with Benny (Corey Hawkins, BlacKkKlansman) an employee of her father’s, Kevin (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector) tries to persuade his child to seize the opportunity she has been afforded through her hard work and his sacrifice. The high cost of rent has forced salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) to move her business to another borough, upsetting her regular clientele. With dreams of something more than working in a salon, Vanessa is hoping to secure an apartment closer to Manhattan where she can pursue her passion in fashion design, but her current address is making this hard to achieve.
When a winning lottery ticket is sold at Usnavi’s bodega with a payout of $96,000, it changes and challenges the dreams of many of the neighborhood residents right about the time a massive blackout hits their part of the city, plunging their nights into total darkness and asking them to survive in the sweltering heat. As the temperature rises, so do the stakes for every kind of relationship that exists in the close-knit neighborhood, leading to a cathartic finale which feels like the breath of fresh air type of release we all could use right about now. Utilizing newly implemented bookends created for the film was a wise choice by screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (who also wrote the original musical) because onstage it’s easy to just hit the audience with a wall of music right away. Opting to ease into it instead reinforces Usnavi’s role as the narrator and removes him having to speak directly to the camera which robs some of the realism that helps propel the movie forward emotionally.
Oh, the music. I forgot to mention the music. I’m almost convinced that In the Heights would work just as well with the music removed (not that I’d want that) but the music is a whole other piece to dissect that I won’t delve as deep into. I will say that Miranda had to trim or remove a number of songs and that frees the movie to open up more and thereby showcase the stronger pieces and voices. Like onstage, the number “96,000” is an absolute showstopper and I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences in the theater or at home applaud when it’s over. Set at a local pool (filmed on location at the Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights) it’s intricately choreographed like a Busby Berkeley musical with so much energy emanating from the screen I swear I was nearly levitating in my seat by the time it was over.
Even more than the staging, it’s one of the best sung films musicals I’ve seen in quite some time. Barrera and Grace have fantastic voices and are pitch perfect in the acting department as well, same goes for Hawkins and the always under-utilized Smits who is so good they combined two roles in the stage musical to create this one for him. The original Mimi in the Broadway cast of RENT, Rubin-Vega regrettably doesn’t show up in film much but is a ball of fire as the gossipy hairdresser and I loved that Hudes changed her relationship with her business partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) and also made them romantically involved. You have to wait a bit for Rubin-Vega to get her moment in the spotlight due to some rearrangement of material but it’s worth it when it arrives.
The biggest names to remember associated with the movie version of In the Heights are Ramos and Merediz. Not only are they going to nab Oscar nominations for their work but Merediz is going to be fighting off other nominees to claim her Best Supporting Actress award for the next six months. As the kindly “abuela” to all the neighborhood in one way or another, Merediz is the only Broadway actor to recreate their role onscreen and it’s not hard to see why. The role is played to perfection and her big number, “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)” is not only beautifully staged by director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) but performed with the kind of raw emotion and honesty that is next to impossible to capture without adornment on film. For his efforts, Ramos is delivering the kind of star making performance that comes along rarely in film, perhaps he learned a trick or two from working with Lady Gaga on A Star is Born. It only takes a few frames of film to understand he possesses the charisma and natural talent to go a long way past the highs In the Heights will surely take him.
Like the stage show, the film does feel overly episodic at times and storylines are picked up and dropped seemingly at random, but that’s a small nitpick in what is generally a free-flowing movie that doesn’t feel like it clocks in at nearly two and a half hours. And I suppose I could mention that while it is lovely to look at in the moment, a song that defies the law of gravity feels a tad out of place and overly effects-laden when the rest of the film is largely grounded in the realism of the neighborhood…albeit with a little magic thrown in here and there.
Delayed from its original release date of June 2020, Warner Brothers could have released this one at any time during the past year, but they decided to wait until the time was right…and the time is absolutely right for In the Heights to make its debut. With the country experiencing a heatwave and the chill of the air-conditioned movie theaters beckoning (it will also be available on HBOMax), I can see In the Heights being a favored destination for many over the coming weeks. Do yourself a favor, a kindness even, and see it on the big screen.