Synopsis – A feature version of the Broadway musical, in which a bodega owner has mixed feelings about closing his store and retiring to the Dominican Republic after inheriting his grandmother’s fortune.
My Take – Anyone who has seen Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Hamilton on Disney+ or on stage can easily attest to the fact that he is indeed incredibly talented, a fact Warner Bros. too agreed to when they picked up the rights to the feature adaption of the quasi-autobiographical musical of his time in Washington Heights, an ethnic neighborhood in northern Manhattan overlooking the George Washington Bridge where Miranda grew up.
Needless to say, with high advertising they also made sure everyone was looking forward to it. Originally staged on Broadway from 2008 to 2011, the musical ended up being nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four, including Best Musical.
Now released ten years later as a feature, including a delay of more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, under the director of Jon M. Chu, whose filmography includes films like Step Up 2: The Streets (2008), Step Up 3D (2010), and the vibrant and colorful smash hit, Crazy Rich Asians (2018), the film is certainly the crowd pleasing entertainer everyone was expecting it to be.
Here, director Chu, takes Miranda’s songs, sprawl of characters and the theatrical book by Quiara Alegría Hudes and corrals everything into a shot-on-location showpiece with several outstanding production numbers, all the while keeping in intact the intimacy that comes with telling a story about a specific culture, along with the hopes and dreams of an immigrant community. In its joyous excess, the film especially makes a case for adapting Broadway musicals into feature form.
Set in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, in the uppermost part of Manhattan, the story unfolds over a period of several days during a sweltering summer and follows the intersecting lives and romances of mainly two couples the 30-year-old owner of a small grocery Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and aspiring designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) and recent Stanford dropout Nina (Leslie Grace).
Despite spending most of his life in Manhattan, Usnavi’s heart is set to return to his native island homeland, Dominican Republic, where he is spent his best days with his deceased father as a young child. However, his attachment to his store, his teenage cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his only store employee, and “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), the loving matriarch of the community, hold him back. Also, he is unable to deny his feelings for Vanessa, his childhood friend, now a beautiful nail technician with high aspirations to become a fashion designer.
Meanwhile, Nina Rosario, who’s just returned after completing her freshman year at Stanford University, has other plans on her mind. Though her father Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), the owner of the local taxi company, has made many sacrifices to get her educated, but Nina is unable to express how she struggled in a world far from her community, and instead wants to get involved in the local immigration rights movement, and reconnect with her former boyfriend, Benny, who works as a dispatcher for her father.
The chunk of what happens throughout the film consists of small details that make up the greater picture and contribute to the strife of this shrinking working class. Though Quiara Alegría Hudes doesn’t deliver a subtle writing debut, it is refreshing nevertheless, as the lives of those in Washington Heights is far from glamorous, but there is a hopefulness that defines their relationship with family, work and the trials set before them. It is this honesty and vulnerability that makes the film connect.
Adding to that director Chu infuses so much imagination and creativity to the film in the form of animated elements, daydream sequences with the environment transforming before the characters and a breathtaking number along a building, the film’s spirit-lifting message about home and family becomes glossed in the exuberant summer explosion of salsa-flavored sunshine and a technicolor extravaganza of dazzling sights. The camerawork by Alice Brooks is drenched in insanely sanitized gloss and shimmer.
The production design and set decoration by Nelson Coates and Andrew Baseman are extremely overwhelming. And the musical numbers, freed from the boundaries of the stage, feel like gorgeous action-film set-pieces. Head-bobbing raps and moving melodies match rhythmic editing and a vibrant, fittingly populous background that’s constant choreography sustains the perpetual, organic flow of a community.
Especially the song ‘96000’ who’s setting at a pool makes for a spectacular, exuberant aqua-ballet number. The same can be said for the sexy dance-off ‘The Club’, which takes place just before a blackout plunges everything into darkness, and the loss of electricity for air conditioning turns up the heat even higher or ‘Carnival del Barrio’, where the entire neighborhood pulsates with energy and pride. Even the theme song is so catchy, even a manhole cover and a garden hose get into the rhythmic act. However, I did find gravity-defying dance ‘When the Sun Goes Down’, a little out of place.
That said, the film does fall short of greatness for a few reasons. Firstly I found the film too reliant on lyrical music, and could have used more of a plot in between its musical numbers, which is part of the reason why it’s not quite as impactful as it could have been. Adding only to its runtime, being a bit thin on plot but comparatively lacking in impressive musical set pieces compared to the rest of the film, the second act certainly feels like it drags a bit in comparison to the first and third acts.
Yet despite these criticisms, this one is a colorful entertainment in the best sense of the term. It’s a musical steeped in happiness, bleached of conflicts and stays a disarmingly important film for the times we’re living in. A major factor for that is the excellent cast.
Anthony Ramos, in particular, is so magnetic. You can’t help but be drawn to him when he’s performing. And while Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera, and Leslie Grace don’t share the same amount of screen time as Ramos or receive his better sense of characterization, they all do well in their respective roles. Ramos‘s biggest threat comes in the form of Gregory Diaz IV, who almost always manage to steal the scenes from him.
However, Olga Merediz, the sole original Broadway performer to reprise her role, manages to be the scene stealer as the adorable Abuela. In other roles, Jimmy Smits, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco manage to leave a mark. Lin-Manuel Miranda himself appears in a small endearing role and makes the most out of it. On the whole, ‘In the Heights’ is a gorgeous, vibrant film with catchy music and thoughtfully inclusive cultural representation.
Directed – Jon M. Chu
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 143 minutes