By Elias Savada.
One big, ambitious Latina love letter that anyone can enjoy.”
So, after having just been scared back into the movie theater with A Quiet Place Part II, it’s time to head into the darkness again, this time joyously soaring in your socially-distanced seat (if necessary/required) to the appropriately titled In the Heights. The tickler line is enough to make you believe you’re in for a wondrous treat. “The creator of Hamilton and the director of Crazy Rich Asians invite you to a cinematic event, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big.” What could go wrong?
Absolutely nothing. Everything goes blissfully right.
Before he created Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda crafted a hip-hp, Spanish-laced musical celebration he wrote as a college sophomore. It would later morph, thanks to a group of creatives lead by playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes (credited with the play’s book), into a 2008 Broadway hit, winning Tony Awards and other accolades. The big-screen adaptation, also by Hudes, propels that award-winning theatrical experience into a truly transformative cinematic event, destined to renew the genre in the same way that West Side Story did 60 years ago. Intensely creative and dynamically absorbing, here’s one film that screams come see me in movie theaters, even though it opens simultaneously on screens and on HBOMax. Director Jon M. Chu not only breaks through the proscenium arch, he obliterates it. The Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City is writ large, and the film creates a constantly flowing, terpsichorean world as hundreds of singers and dancers enchantingly move about the hot summer streets of Nueva York.
Story in a nutshell:
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, taking over for Miranda, who played the role during its original Off-Broadway and Broadway runs), a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic and bodega owner (as well as the film’s consummate narrator) realizes that a broken refrigerator is the least of his problems. Gentrification of the neighborhood is pushing longtime residents to reevaluate their struggling businesses, including Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who has already sold off a portion of his livery dispatch service. His daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), an out-of-state freshman at Stanford, and her future weighs heavily on his finances. While Usnavi tries to hook up with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a wannabe designer, Benny (Corey Hawkins), Kevin’s assistant, tries to renew a stalled relationship with Nina when she returns home for a break.
A major sidebar revolves around Manuela’s Nail Salon, a decades-old establishment that is moving to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. The pack of ladies there are a coven of catty hellraisers, including Vanessa, who has dreams planted elsewhere in the Big Apple. “No Me Diga,” a Latin tune that offers one of the many visual delights in the film is their highlight, with Daphne-Dubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Grace, and Barrera providing vocals.
Other cast members that shine include Olga Merediz as Abeula Claudia, the grandmotherly mentor to most of the younger people in the neighborhood, and Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, Usnavi’s younger cousin and proxy Cyrano de Bergerac. Merediz won a Tony and Drama Desk Award for the same role in the stage version and her number “Paciencia y Fe” is a showstopper. While Smit’s singing skills are limited, the large ensemble quickly makes you forget about any small issues I had with the film. Miranda has a small role as the shaved ice seller piragüero, his small pushcart doing battle against a larger Mister Softee truck.
As the story unfolds, the melodies drift about the beautiful cityscape, often on widescreen display, intercutting back- (and front-) stories that mostly cover a 3-day countdown to a major city blackout, and the hot-and-bothered activities that rise in its wake.
One running thread involves an unclaimed winning lottery ticket sold at the bodego. The song “96,000” — that being the pay-out — starts with simple white traces (one of the films several organic effects, others being fabrics unfurling off of rooftops or moving mannequin heads) as Benny, Usnavi, Sonny, and Graffiti Pete (Noah Catala) head off for a swim at the Highbridge Park public pool, wondering aloud how to spend those winnings. Soon joined by 500 extras splashing about, old-timers and cinema fans will revel in a salute to yesteryear’s overhead geometric visionary Busby Berkeley, and an underwater nod to Esther Williams’ aquatic delights.
The film’s cadences follow the usual Hamilton-esque tropes, with the many craftspeople involving bringing the adaptation to a whole new level that a confined theatrical production can’t duplicate. Choreography (Christopher Scott), editing (Myron Kerstein), production design (Nelson Coates), music (Miranda), wardrobe (Mitchell Travers), cinematography (Alice Brooks), sassy acting (everyone, even the birds seem in sync) are all at the top end of the spectrum. It’s one of the best transfers of a Broadway musical to the screen.
A vibrant and visionary energy carries from one whimsically-tinged number to the next. The camera flows, pans, follows, twists, and even turns sideways in one marvelous sequence when Benny and Vanessa dance on the outer wall of a tenement building while singing “When the Sun Goes Down.”
In the Heights is one big, ambitious Latina love letter that anyone can enjoy. Come for the party and stay for a parting favor that pops up in the middle of the final credits.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).