In the heights couldn’t be more perfectly timed. For one thing, summer movies aren’t much more summery than this one, which takes place during a record-breaking heat wave in New York City. On the other hand, this vibrant screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s live musical captures something that we largely did without last year: a happy sense of oneness.
It’s the most socially distanced movie I’ve seen in months. The action takes place in crowded shop aisles and gossip-filled beauty salons where everyone knows each other. Musical numbers, which mix hip-hop, Latin pop, salsa and other styles, frequently spill over into the surrounding neighborhood. The actors become dancers in an electrifying street ballet.
Much of this is wrapped up in the film’s transporting opening sequence, which brings us to this pan-Latin neighborhood of Washington Heights. Miranda appears in a small role as a vendor, selling crushed ice in a cart, but our real guide to this Upper Manhattan neighborhood is Usnavi de la Vega, played by a formidable Anthony Ramos.
Usnavi has a popular corner bodega which is particularly popular for its café con leche. As he raps about the challenges of running his rambling small business in a rapidly becoming bourgeois place, he is joined by a chorus of neighborhood voices singing about their own struggles to get by.
As much as he loves Washington Heights and the people who live there, Usnavi longs to return to the beaches of the Dominican Republic where he grew up. He hopes his teenage cousin Sonny, played by Gregory Diaz IV, could accompany him, but Sonny, an undocumented immigrant, dreams of becoming an American citizen in a subplot that makes headlines. One of the most poignant lessons from In the heights is that everyone has a different conception of the house.
Usnavi has a longtime crush on Vanessa, played by excellent Melissa Barrera, who hopes to move to town and become a fashion designer. Leslie Grace plays their friend Nina, a college superstar who has just had a difficult year at Stanford, where she feels out of place. But her dad, Kevin – a cute trick from Jimmy Smits – wants Nina to stick with it: if she can’t get out of the Heights and succeed, he thinks, what hope is there for someone. else?
Kevin, who immigrated to New York City from Puerto Rico decades ago, runs a taxi business that is one of the last Latino-owned businesses in the area. As rents rise and people and businesses are forced to leave, the community is excited when Usnavi discovers that someone has purchased a winning lottery ticket for a $ 96,000 jackpot at his bodega.
I saw In the heights onstage in Los Angeles in 2010, and while screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes made some clever tweaks to her original book for the musical, some of the material’s fundamental weaknesses persist here. The various romantic and ambitious subplots are quite captivating, but seem slightly stretched over two hours. Washington Heights seems more vivid and immediate on screen than on stage, but in some ways the simplistic and relentlessly optimistic nature of the story seems all the more glaring.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with staying upbeat right now, and director Jon M. Chu is quite up to the task. Chu previously realized Crazy Rich Asians, and he’s good at bringing together resonant ideas about generational conflict and cultural confusion into a skillful, crowd-pleasing package. It should be noted that Chu also made two entries in the Intensify dance film franchise, and while I sometimes wish he would slow down the editing and let the musical numbers breathe more, it’s pretty hard to resist the vibrancy of his cinema.
In the heights It might not be a great movie, but it’s a really good cinematic experience. There are beautiful moments here, like when Benny and Nina do a gravity-defying surreal dance along a building. There are also exciting ones, like when the neighborhood, shaken by a power failure triggered by the heatwave, mobilizes to organize the mother of all neighborhood parties.
And there’s a knockout solo from Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood adoptive grandmother, played by Olga Merediz, perfectly reprising her Tony-nominated role. Claudia’s big act is called “Paciencia y Fe”, or “Patience and Faith”, values that she has held onto since leaving Cuba in the 1940s. She is the living embodiment of the loving and enduring spirit of this film.