Sometimes a movie comes along and meets its moment, transcending its innate flaws to feel more important, more powerful than it may have been perceived otherwise. In The Heights, the long-awaited film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton Tony Award-winner, initially had a Summer 2020 release date, but now lands at a time where we’ve suffered tremendous losses and have felt cooped up for over a year. Now, more than ever, we all need a burst of energy, an expression of elation, a reason to frolic in fire hydrant fountains and burst out in song. This film more than delivers on that feeling.
Directed by John M. Chu, who brought a similar effervescence to Crazy Rich Asians, and adapted by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the pair expertly blends the intimate with the outlandish, providing us with a joy machine of a musical, and one in which characters break out into song. I love when a musical is unafraid to be a musical. Full disclosure, I have not seen the stage production, so I judge this film on its own merits. I knew, however, that we were in good hands when the opening number includes a shot of our main character, Usnavi, using his foot to turn a manhole cover into a DJ’s turntable. OK, movie, I see you. Let’s go!
Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, a bodega owner in Washington Heights, showing the winning energy, and then some, he displayed in Hamilton and A Star Is Born. The origins of his name are worth a sweet, funny, and moving chuckle. Born in the Dominican Republic, Usnavi dreams of returning there one day for a simpler, more beautiful life. He sees the writing on the wall as his upper Manhattan neighborhood faces gentrification, the DACA children fearing deportation, and his culture getting reduced to stereotypes by a bigoted society.
Borrowing somewhat from West Side Story, the film takes a radically different approach to the immigrant experience. Instead of street gangs forming the backdrop for a story of star-crossed lovers, we get the workers, the strivers, and the talented surrounding a tale of two couples. Usnavi loves Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of a career as a fashion designer while marking time in a neighborhood salon. Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) works as a dispatcher at Mr. Rosario’s (Jimmy Smits) small storefront car service and has fallen for Rosario’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) who has returned from Stanford University, traumatized by the discrimination she faced there. Although bookended by a framing device in which Usnavi tells the story to a group of children on a Dominican beach, the main plot traces the few days leading up to a citywide electrical blackout.
Such as it is, it’s a fairly threadbare plot. The focus here is on family, friendships, and the need for community. Although the opening title number serves to introduce us to the main cast, which also includes the charming Gregory Diaz IV as Usnavi’s cousin Sonny, a DACA kid, Daniela (Rent’s Daphne Rubin-Vega) the salon owner who craves more success by relocating her shop uptown to the Bronx, and the legendary Olga Merediz as Usnavi’s Abuela Claudia. Merediz originated the role on Broadway and stuns with her 11 o’clock number, Paciencia Y Fe (patience and faith). Miranda, who played Usnavi on stage, appears here as the Piragua Guy, rolling his cart of shaved ice through the neighborhood and perhaps bumping into another Hamilton alum along the way. Stay for the post-credits sequence for more on that! Look also for a delightful cameo by Valentina of Ru Paul’s Drag Race Fame in the big salon sequence. My biggest quibble is that with two competing love stories, the emphasis wobbled back and forth too much, taking away a little from Usnavi’s A storyline. Ramos has enough charisma and sparkle in his eye to carry the film, but a certain lopsidedness prevailed. Even the boldest number goes to our B storyline characters, but with no bum notes in the cast and in the numbers, it’s hard to complain too much.
While the dramatic scenes feel intimate and small, the film explodes with every musical production. Starting on the street, the show stopping 96,000 turns into a splashing, propulsive, Busby Berkeley-esque extravaganza with literally hundreds of dancers and singers dreaming of what they’d do with that amount of dollars. Chu not only knows exactly where to put the camera in his numbers, he has thought through his shots, accentuating the percussive elements with each of editor Myron Kerstein’s perfectly executed cuts. This film pulsates with energy from beginning to end. Cinematographer Alice Brooks and production designer Nelson Coates also add so much to the film by starting with realism via the actual streets of Manhattan and adding the magical during the musical moments. One shot in the film, as Vanessa runs through the streets as huge bolts of fabric unravel from the buildings above, brought me to tears. It serves as a profoundly gorgeous expression of creative desire. It’s easy to see how the seeds of hip hop and rap here led Miranda to his next sensation, but In The Heights has its own magic within the Hispanic music culture it celebrates.
Performances across the board ooze talent. Grace has such star quality and a pure, Disney-fied but lovely singing voice. Same goes for Barerra, while Ramos and Hawkins have the power and dynamism to generate enough electricity to resolve the storyline’s big blackout. No doubt, Merediz will get Oscar attention, and deservedly so, but expect many more for this exceptional film.
Nothing, however, prepared me for When The Sun Goes Down in which Hawkins and Grace take part in a jaw-dropping homage to Fred Astaire’s Royal Wedding dance number, but amped up to 11. It’s gorgeous, impossible, and as pure an expression of movie magic as you can get. I found myself thrilled for the actors when they were able to finally watch the film, marveling at how this studio shot, green screen, gimbal-driven song would look once all of the effects work got filled in. It’s a stunner and served as one of several times I found myself crying for the sheer beauty of it.
Yes, the film contains some sad cries as well, but more than anything, I shed tears because I got to sit in a large theater with only a handful of people, and allowed a giant movie movie to dredge up all of those lonely, despairing feelings which have resided in my heart for over a year, and gave me somewhere to put those emotions. It also celebrates diversity and cultures we rarely get to see given such grand treatment. I can’t wait to watch this film again and again, reminding myself that joy will always win out over heartache.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
In the Heights opens in theaters on June 11th and on HBO Max for 31 days following release.