In the Heights
2021, PG-13, 143 min. Directed by John M. Chu. Starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 11, 2021
What is a neighborhood? It's not the place, or the people. It's the place and the people, at a particular moment in time. That's the story of In the Heights, the cinematic adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's breakout pre-Hamilton musical about three days in the life of an Upper Manhattan working class community.
In the Heights doesn't structure the story of the changing face of New York as a battle. Gentrification is happening, but change, well, change is a thing that happens. As local businessman Kevin Rosario (Smits) notes, the Heights was an Irish neighborhood before it became a little corner of the Dominican Republic. Some businesses are being forced out, but others, like the corner bodega, are closing because the owners have other plans. Usnavi (Ramos) has his dream of moving back to the Dominican Republic, to reopen his father's old beachfront bar: The bodega, he tells the beach kids, was only meant to be a brief stop gap, but he was there for a decade. Yes, he tells the story of his old block in New York's Hispanic Washington Heights as a flashback: It's about his best friend, Benny (Hawkins), who works at the neighborhood cab company; and Nina (Grace), the girl from the block who got into Stanford carrying all the hopes and dreams of the community with her, and is buckling under the weight; and Vanessa (Barrera), working at the nail salon but desperate to move Downtown, past 14th Street, where her dreams of breaking into fashion are hanging by a thread.
There's no villain hanging over In the Heights, no one to really blame for anything. Instead, this is like a Shakespearian problem play in vibrant song-and-dance form, as the clock ticks down to a blackout. After all, what's NYC in the summer without someone sweating on a stoop? But the real countdown is in Usnavi's planned departure, and Nina returning to school, and Vanessa getting that apartment. If they get their dreams, then they leave the Heights. If they stay, their dreams die. How to square those circles?
Director John M. Chu goes past his Crazy Rich Asians success to his breakthrough helming the second and third entries in the always-fun Step Up series. Yet while this is his chance to bring street dance in a rainbow of forms to the big screen (no limb goes limp here, even in mass crowd scenes), he also delves into the Hollywood classics. Clear bows to Busby Berkeley abound, especially in a pool routine for "96,000" that is an obvious homage to the human fountain in Footlight Parade; but Chu and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler find a fresh twist on Nicholas Castle's rotating room trick from Royal Wedding – no mean feat in itself, but it's moments like that which justify going for a full cinematic production, as opposed to the filmed stage version of Hamilton. Chu leans heavily into the inherent fantasy of the musical with massive dance routines, huge carnivals that spontaneously erupt, and fantastical elements that, again, speak to the golden era of Technicolor musicals. And, oh, is In the Heights vibrant and awash with color and movement.
If In the Heights ever stumbles, it's in that old mantra about too much of a good thing. Miranda and stage play book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes aren't precious about their original text, restructuring key events to change motivations, reordering songs, and chamfering off some of the harsher plot points, all making for a fresh but familiar experience for fans. But two-and-a-half hours in the cinema is a different experience to three hours with an intermission in the theatre, and In the Heights can leave you breathless, especially after the boisterous, nonstop opening act before the blackout, where the energy never drops. That restructuring and reordering pushes several of the emotionally heaviest moments and most loaded songs into the third act, a tempo change that's a little jarring after so much excitement before.
But "it's too good" is scarcely a complaint. In the Heights is unashamedly romantic, fearlessly thrilling, endlessly optimistic and given life and voice through sheer love of people, of place – of community.