In the Heights is one of those movies where you leave smiling like a fool. It’s not perfect, but its cinematic soul is so bright, and its heart so big it’s impossible not to forgive what few flaws it does have. Filled with love, regret, anger, heartbreak, and celebration, it is a film that possesses almost mythic restorative powers.
In short, it’s a feel-good romp through the barrio.
Jon M. Chu is no stranger to musicals or impressive casts. For In the Heights, he brings a much-needed cinematic flair to a type of music that had long been relegated to the b-roll of cinema schedules. Chu takes a flaw of most modern musicals, the editing, and turns it into a feature that brings the stage play to breathtaking cinematic life.
The musical concerns itself with the residents of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan, the people who live there, their love and losses, as a city-wide blackout looms on the horizon. Based on the Broadway musical written and conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, with Hudes adapting the play for the screen, the movie is an energetic faithful rendering of the play.
Chu, along with his camerawoman Alice Brooks, revels in magical realism as In the Heights does everything from having the sounds of the streets provide the literal soundtrack to having people dance on the sides of buildings. Of all the things Chu and Brooks achieve, the thing that pops out the most is how expansive and encompassing the movie feels. Compelling and earnest, it is a musical that finds heart in both the big and small moments.
The cast is stacked from top to bottom with legends to will-be legends. The star, however, is Anthony Ramos, who plays Usnavi, the owner of the local bodega. Ramos effortlessly tosses off lyrics and charms the camera. His energy is infectious and infuses the already upbeat songs with a bubbling layer of feel-good charisma.
But it’s Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia who steals the show. Claudia is the block’s adopted grandmother. Merediz originated the role on stage, and her song “Paciencia y Fe” is the culmination of Chu’s and Brook’s inventive and elegant fleet of foot camerawork. Chu and Brooks blend memory and dreams into a scene of gnawing frustration and a compassionate understanding of the immigrant experience.
In truth, it’s the last bit that infuses so much of In the Heights with so much power. Whether it’s Usnavi’s dream of moving back to the Dominican Republic and re-opening his father’s shop or Nina’s (Leslie Grace) fear of failing and letting down her community, Hudes’s script attempts to shine a light on issues as well as show people’s triumph. Brooks’s camera follows Nina as she travels around her neighborhood, worried about how she will let everyone down. A younger version of herself is seen across the street full of promise.
Chu crams his frames full to bursting with characters engaged in their own stories. Re-watching his films is rewarding because you begin to see smaller stories unfold in the background, actors interacting with each other outside the framework of the main narrative. It provides a more textured, fuller world for the movie to inhabit and allows for much of the overwhelming scope In the Heights gives us.
Yes, In the Heights is another example of Jimmy Smits, who plays Kevin Rosario, the owner of a taxi company and Nina’s proud father, of having woefully too little of the charismatic movie star. Smits is an actor whose mere presence in a film often leads to the audience wanting more of him no matter the size of the role. While Smits’s part may not be as large as I’d like it, he has one of the more heartbreaking lines in the movie, and he delivers it beautifully, of course.
Besides, I defy anyone not to break out into a grin when he sings “Good Morning Usnavi.” You can’t. It’s an impossible task.
Chu lets every actor shine, even if it’s merely a scene here or there. Dasha Polanco’s Cuca barely has any lines, but Chu allows her little moments to shine, whether giving Usnavi a come hither look or the way she playful gives Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) a hard time. If you pay attention, you’ll notice Steaphine Batriz’s Carla killing it in a small role. She works at the Salon with Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Daniella and Cuca. Rubin-Vega, Beatriz, and Polanco are a trio who seem to be a package deal. One is never without the other in what appears to be a throuple, neatly tucked into the all but bursting seams of the film’s frames.
Rubin-Vega’s “No me Diga” is a perfect example of how Chu embraces the magical realism of In the Heights. The song takes place in the salon and involves everybody singing and dancing, but then Chu cuts to a display of wigs and shows the hairpieces dancing along with the song. Little things like these make the movie gush with an effervescent feel of joy and harmony.
Even when the film tackles heavy subject matters like undocumented immigrants, rising racism, or gentrification, all of which have only grown worse since the Broadway show debuted, it never loses its earnestness or sense of vitality.
Tragically, the film’s comments on racism are dulled by the filmmakers’ own ignorance in casting. Hudes’s script attempts to cover a large spectrum of the Latino experience, as long as they are light-skinned. If the movie has an unforgivable flaw, it’s the colorism aspect.
Having lived in the Bronx for a few years, I found it odd that so many Dominican Republicans shown were light-skinned, considering all the ones I knew were dark-skinned. It is inexcusable, as it shrinks the movie’s scope that is endeavoring to be so widely representative.
I fully believe no movie can be one thing to all people. But for a film such as In the Heights, which is endeavoring to cast as wide a net as possible, it seems sadly myopic.
The film’s one Black character, Benny (Corey Hawkins), rivals Ramos as someone whose smile can practically light the film screen all on its own. Hawkins works at Rosario’s Cab Company and has dated/is dating/wants to date Nina. Hawkins and Grace have a sweet chemistry together. The couple has a dance number towards the end, where they dance on the side of the apartment building. It’s a moment that almost lifted me out of my seat from the sheer ecstatic beauty of the moment.
Benny and Nina are part of two couples; the movie has us rooting for a happy ending. The other is Usnavi and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a hairdresser who wants to move out of the Heights and be a fashion designer. As much as I loved Ramos and Barrera, I never really bought the chemistry between them. They sell it during the musical numbers, and I was never bored of them; I just never found them as engaging as Benny and Nina. Despite that, they are so endlessly talented that it somehow didn’t bother me all that much.
In the Heights was edited by Myron Kerstein in such a way as to both compliment Brooks’s cinematography while also adding rhythm and energy to Chu’s direction. Often in musicals, filmmakers will cut away during dance numbers or edit them, so we never see the entire body. While Kerstein does cut away, he does so in a way that doesn’t feel like they are trying to cover up an actor’s lack of dance skills.
One scene has Usnavi looking out his bodega window watching the people pass by. We see his face framed in the glass, while we also see the reflection of the dancers beneath him. It is invigorating; not only do they show us the whole crowd and their synchronized movements, but it also makes us feel like Usnavi, voyeurs. Kerstein’s editing is crucial to the success of In the Heights as it keeps the flow of each number smooth and unbroken as characters will often go from talking to singing and vice versa without warning.
In the Heights is a flawed film, but I’ve also re-watched it like three or four times since I first watched it. It is a fairy tale musical that strives to inspire as well as tap our feet. Chu is a maestro at weaving several stories together so finely and effortlessly that you don’t even notice them. The stitching is fine, but if you look closely, you can see it, and it’s beautiful.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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