In the Heights (2021)
The Time Has Come
Well, yes, Hamilton, of course, but acclaimed musical theatre powerhouse Lin-Manuel Miranda did not vault onto the 18th-century stage unheralded. Before Hamilton, there was In the Heights, which he co-wrote with Pulitzer finalist Quiara Alegría Hudes. Hudes takes solo credit for the film adaptation screenplay, Miranda presumably busy being the hottest thing since sliced bread right now, but he does crop up here for a brief singing cameo as the local piragüero (a shaved ice vendor).
And while Hamilton continues to pack ‘em in on the stage, with the Australian production currently wowing Sydney audiences, its elder brother is no slouch, either. In the Heights blitzed the Tony Awards in 2008, with four wins out of 13 nominations, and has been slated for a film adaptation for ages. It now comes to us under the direction of Jon M. Chu, who is currently riding high off the mammoth success of Crazy Rich Asians (2018) but knows a thing or two about musical cinema thanks to his work on the Step Up flicks (but let’s forget about 2015’s ill-fated Jem and the Holograms, okay?).
So that’s quite a pedigree, and even if you’re not a fan of musicals, you’d expect some decent fun to arise out of that creative alchemy. What you might not expect is one of the best films of the year, but hey — that’s what we get. In the Heights absolutely slaps.
There’s no such thing as a perfect film because there’s no such thing as objectivity in art — we can’t measure art the way we measure physical properties, and anyone who says differently is a fool. When we talk about “perfect” films, what we’re really talking about are films where every element is working in concert towards one artistic goal. There are no bum notes, there’s no dead air, no ill-thought scenes, no awkward shots or cuts — or at least as few as possible (even your favorite films are flawed in some way, but maybe that’s an essay for another day). In the Heights is one of these flicks that approaches that Platonic ideal, and you can tell right out of the gate. It’s so vibrant, catchy, specific, warm, and alive — it almost dares you not to get caught up in its rhythms, its culture, its joyous sense of place and people.
Rhythms, culture, place, and people are, of course, the lifeblood of the piece. Set in the predominantly Dominican New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, the film follows a number (a huge number, really) of interrelated characters over the course of three days before a heatwave blacks out the entire district.
There’s Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs the local bodega but dreams of returning to his roots in the Dominican Republic to revive his late father’s business. He’s crushing on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who wants to be a fashion designer and is looking to move out of the Heights and into a downtown apartment to pursue her dream. Vanessa works at a local barbershop run by salon girls Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), and Cuca (Dascha Polanco), who are days away from relocating to the Bronx due to increasing rent. Usnavi’s childhood friend Nina (Leslie Grace) is back from Stanford, having dropped out after feeling self-conscious of her Latin heritage and working-class background among all the white bread kids. This, of course, disappoints her father, local businessman Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits — and yay! Jimmy Smits!), who bootstrapped his way up so he could give his daughter more opportunities than he ever had and is about to overextend himself to keep doing so. His employee, ambitious Benny (Corey Hawkins), is glad to see her back, though, seeing as he’s in love with her. Meanwhile, Usnavi’s teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) loves living in the Heights but is starting to twig that his status as an undocumented immigrant is going to put some roadblocks in his path. The whole neighborhood is doted on by elderly Cuban immigrant Claudia (Olga Merediz), unofficial abuela (grandmother) to all, and sundry.
The plot kicks into gear when Usnavi learns that someone bought a winning lottery ticket at his corner store, and the $96,000 that it’ll bring is a life-changing amount — enough to move back to the DR, lease a business, pay tuition, or … well, you get it. But will that money be used to propel someone out of the neighborhood or inject new life and hope into it?
I mentioned the word “specificity” earlier, and it’s a good one for budding writers and filmmakers to keep in mind. Themes are universal, but stories need to be specific, and In the Heights is a pitch-perfect example of that principle in action. Its themes can be plugged into by anyone — What is home? Who will I be? Am I limited by my past? Is there hope for the future? Where do I belong? What do I owe the people around me, and what do they owe me? All big hitter themes. What makes In the Heights pop is the way these themes are viewed through the lens of the very specific experience of living and working in Washington Heights. The sense of place is palpable; you don’t just see the street corners and shopfronts, the local pool, the taxi dispatch, you can almost smell them. It’s a riot of color and texture, and it’s all very entertaining and energetic, but the film never makes the mistake of exoticizing its subject or, worse (to me, anyway, but I got a chip on my shoulder), romanticizing urban poverty and the working-class struggle. It comes close, and perhaps that’s the nature of musicals, but it manages to thread the needle, being a film about very serious, pressing modern issues and a deliriously enjoyable, showstopping song and dance movie.
And how are those songs and those dances? Fucking phenomenal, my friends. Jon M. Chu has had the weirdest career trajectory, but this feels like some real “cometh the man, cometh the hour” stuff. His sense of staging, his way of framing song, of blocking dance routines, integrating camera movement with the choreography (by three-time Emmy-nominated choreographer Christopher Scott) to best show off the skills of the performers and the possibilities of the filmic form is jaw-dropping. It’s his finest work by a long margin. There’s a scene or two where he frames a chorus line of dancers in the street in the window that a character is looking through that almost had me applauding, it was so elegant, so perfectly matched to material, putting the action of the dance literally into the architecture of the street. Meanwhile, we’ve got Miranda’s almost patented Broadway/rap lyrical style in our ears, buoyed along by salsa rhythms and hip-hop beats, the beating heart of the neighborhood, and the film. In conjunction? It’s just stunning stuff.
The whole thing is, really. It’s been a rough 18 months, folks, and we’ve still got a way to go, so if you’re feeling the need for some brilliant cinema about struggle in the face of adversity, about the importance of community and connection, cannonball yourself at In the Heights. It’s as close to a guaranteed great time at the movies as you’re likely to get in this lifetime.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson