In The Heights is streaming on HBO Max
I wasn’t a fan of musicals until I was. It took a while. The problem began with old black and white movies. Fred Astaire. A vibe right at home in the 30s and 40s. The kind of thing that was a fairly reliable moneymaker in theaters up until the 60s. And, yes, there are a few films that, even then, I recognized as classics. What kind of monster dislikes Singin’ In The Rain?
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s output didn’t help matters. I saw The Phantom of the Opera and even bought an overpriced t-shirt in a misguided gambit to try and fit in with the theater kids in high school. His work felt like the kind of thing I was supposed to like, yet every time I listened to the soundtrack for Jesus Christ Superstar and every time I was pummeled by the music from Cats, I wasn’t left cold. I actively disliked it.
Deep down to my core, the largest issue was the part where a character would burst into song and share their feelings with the world. How ridiculous! How unrealistic! I’ll point out that I had zero problems with, oh, the realism of a kid getting bitten by a radioactive spider and gaining the ability to wall-crawl. For years, I blithely blew off musicals. For years, I sneered at people who wrote off the entire horror genre as I proceeded to write off musicals.
Then, I wised up. Then, I saw Hamilton.* I’m a history nerd. I like hip-hop. I require humor in my media. Watching it, my head exploded, and in that moment of cranial catastrophe, a thought occurred to me. Damn! I really like this! Then I saw In The Heights, the new musical created by the mind behind Hamilton, and I had an epiphany. I realized that musicals had real value, even to a ding-dong like myself. To paraphrase Shakespeare, no duh.
On a gorgeous beach in the Dominican Republic, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) has a story to tell the kids gathered around him. Make that “stories.” All of them take place in a mythical land these children have only heard of and can only dream of, since it’s barely real itself. That place is New York, specifically a neighborhood known as Washington Heights.
It’s there that Usnavi runs a bodega, along with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) whisks into the shop to buy her daily lottery ticket and check on Usnavi. After all, she raised him and raised a good-sized chunk of the neighborhood. Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) strolls into the place as well. He runs the taxi stand across the street, along with his can-do deputy Benny (Corey Hawkins). While business might not be as good as it used to be, since neighborhood gentrification does take a bite, Kevin’s keeping it above water.
There are complications. There always are. Local attorney Alejandro (Mateo Gomez) tells Usnavi that the beachside bar his late father ran in the Dominican Republic is up for sale. Usnavi nurses a dream of the DR, one where he can leave behind New York and a piece of junk fridge that’s always on the verge of quitting. His dream has white sandy beaches and a tropical breeze.
There are more complications. There always are. Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) is back home from college at Stamford, and maybe college isn’t for her. Usnavi’s dreams of the DR clash with his dream of dating Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). She’s got her own dream, one where she gets a place in Midtown and becomes the fashion designer she knows she can be. All of those dreams live and breathe in a neighborhood, one that’s changing faster than they know.
I’m a little slow, and while some might require a simple nudge to get the point, I need a sledgehammer. With In The Heights, I can feel the door opening in my acceptance of musicals. A big part of that is director Jon M. Chu. Instead of sets that feel artificial, Chu wisely shot the film in New York, ensuring that the sense of place feels real, even when crowds of people jump up and dance. Speaking of dance, Chu has made a point of including dance in all of his films,** He knows how to shoot it properly and, like any strong action filmmaker, he knows that if we can see the full bodies and movements of his performers, we’ll be more affected by the impact. He’s also made a film that’s a riot of bright colors. Even while he followed in the time-honored tradition of making a musical that’s too damn long, he still made a musical that looks, sounds, and feels gorgeous.
To get that deep down feeling, however, you need a foundation of material that tells just the right story in just the right way. You likely knew already that In The Heights was a hit musical with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Wisely, Hudes was brought in to write the screenplay and Miranda produced and collaborated on the music. We’ve got a batch of rock-solid musical numbers, all of which either push forward the narrative or tell us about the interior lives of the singers. By adding strong music to strong direction, you’ll get something exceptional.
With big-budget musicals, there’s a temptation to cast the biggest stars possible, regardless of if they actually have any musical talent.*** That temptation is wisely resisted here and, instead of celebrities, we have a cast full of talented performers bringing energy and zeal. To my mind, everyone did strong work. I kept coming back to two performances. As Usnavi, Anthony Ramos is charming, funny, romantic, torn, and is totally watchable. If there’s a lead, he’s it, and he has the gusto to carry the film on his shoulders. Quieter but no less important is Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, who reprises her performance from the stage. In a sea of big performances, she’s the subtle mortar that helps to hold it all together.
2021 feels like a cinematic year that’s just getting started. While we’ve had strong films throughout the pandemic, there haven’t been many that feel big, optimistic, fun, and the kind of thing that demands to be seen on a giant-ass screen. In The Heights is the movie that, if you’re vaccinated and feel safe in a theater, you owe it to yourself to see it properly. It’s one of the best films of the year, a distinction I never thought I’d make about a musical.
*On Disney+ of course! Affording actual tickets…not so much.
**He’s part of a dance crew, and that experience acts as a trigger to unleash his creativity.
***Russell Crowe’s singing in Les Miserables and Tom Cruise’s warbling in Rock of Ages were not what I would call good. Both are exceptionally talented actors, just not so much in the crooning department.