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‘In The Heights’ flies high

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Full disclosure: I love a movie musical.

I love the big production numbers and over-the-top performances. I love storytelling through song and watching scores of extras dance in unison. I love the way that a three-minute song can do the emotional heavy lifting of a half-hour’s worth of dialogue.

So I was always going to dig “In the Heights,” the Jon M. Chu-directed film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s iconic musical of the same name, currently in theaters and available via streaming on HBO Max. Sure, I had a few minor misgivings – the film had passed through multiple hands on its way to the screen, which is rarely a positive sign – but with Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hughes both onboard, I figured at the very least, we were looking at a high floor.

But as it turns out, the title is indicative of a lot more than just the neighborhood in which it is set, because by God, this movie SOARS.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, “Hamilton”) runs a bodega in the NYC neighborhood of Washington Heights. It’s a tight-knit community that includes all manner of people doing what they can to get by. In short order, we meet some of the stalwarts of the neighborhood. There’s Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, TV’s “Law & Order: SVU”), the grandmotherly figure who raised him. There’s taxi company owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits, “The Tax Collector”), his home-from-Stanford daughter Nina (Leslie Grace in her feature debut) and his dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins, TV’s “Chrysalis”). There’s aspiring fashion designer and potential Usnavi love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, TV’s “Vida”).

Plus, we’ve got Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, “Vampires vs. the Bronx”) and a delightful trio of salon ladies in Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, TV’s “Katy Keene”), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz, TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco, “The Irishman”) and a score more neighborhood residents. Not to mention the neighborhood Piraguero (Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton”).

Times are changing in the neighborhood, with the looming specter of gentrification casting a long shadow over everything. Daniela’s rent is going up, leaving her priced out of her current location. Kevin is making financial sacrifices and decisions in order to keep Nina at Stanford, even as she struggles with whether she wants to go back. And Usnavi is slowly saving money in hopes of returning to the Dominican Republic, the place of his birth that he has internally idealized.

But even in a place so wedded to its generational history, times can and do change. And as these residents of the Heights – young, old and in-between – search for their place in this shifting world, they’re left to decide just what – and who – truly matters to them.

Now, “In the Heights” has a narrative that is a good deal more complicated than what I’ve described – a story packed with romantic feelings for people and places and rife with understanding of economic and cultural complexity – but it’s best for you to just experience the details for yourself. Suffice it to say that, at its heart, this is a love story. It’s about love between individuals, yes, but also about love for your heritage.

Translating stage musicals to the big screen doesn’t always work. Having both Miranda and Hughes heavily involved makes a huge difference of course, as does having a director in Jon Chu who clearly both fully grasps and utterly adores the trappings of the musical form. Chu’s overall aesthetic sense fits nicely with the vibe here, and while he might not share the specific experiences of Miranda and Hughes, he’s more than with them in general terms.

The result is a film that features probably half-a-dozen legitimate show-stoppers among its many delicately detailed sequences. Whether you’ve got scores of people dancing in the streets or a beautifully-executed gravity-defying duet or a pool-set number straight out of the Esther Williams playbook, “In the Heights” is unafraid to go hard in the direction of grand spectacle.

The music is exceptional as well, packed with the genre influences and myriad rhythms that, while certainly predictive of what was to come for Miranda, are very much their own thing. Everyone will have their own favorites. The titular tune leads things off and is exceptional. I was also taken by songs like “$96,000” and “Blackout.” Word is that the number “Piragua” – featuring Piraguera and his rivalry with the local ice cream man – was almost cut, which would have been a shame, because Miranda crushes it. As always with this sort of thing, your mileage will vary, but rest assured – you WILL have a favorite.

Musicals are at their best when they strike a balance between the grandiose and the granular. It’s a difficult feat to pull off on stage and perhaps even more difficult on screen, but everyone involved here manages to do it deftly and decisively.

Performances? Top-notch. Ramos is all charm, embodying the aspirational pragmatism that in many ways defines the neighborhood. Smits brings his typical excellence to the screen. Merediz is phenomenal as she reprises her Tony-nominated role from the stage version. Barrera is a mesmerizing screen presence; she captures your eye and ear and you can’t escape. Hawkins is a low-key delight, while Grace’s confused Nina is gently engaging. Diaz is practically bursting with talent. And the salon trio – Rubin-Vega, Beatriz and Polanco – are an utter delight, bringing a bubbling joyous energy every time they appear. And on and on and on – honestly, everyone is great, from the stars to the single-sceners.

Again, my affinity for movie musicals meant that I was always going to like “In the Heights.” I just didn’t know that I was going to love it. A beautiful story that is beautifully told, this is a grand spectacle built on a humble foundation. The songs are catchy, the production values are outstanding and the performances are solid gold across the board; it’s a film that will lift your spirit and feed your soul.

“In the Heights” soars.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 June 2021 18:16

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