There are certain movie musical spectacles that just take your breath away. The ensemble pieces of Busby Berkeley. That opening prologue to West Side Story. The log dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Or the dance across the bleachers in Grease. It’s been a long time since we had a true musical extravaganza – Chicago and La La Land intentionally used average dancers to make a thematic point, while The Greatest Showman and Moulin Rouge! used quick cuts to hide their dancers’ weaknesses. When I watched In The Heights, it felt abundantly clear what we’ve been missing. Jon M. Chu has gifted us with pure spectacle, set to the music and lyrics of America’s current poet laureate Lin-Manuel Miranda. And while the material in between those songs doesn’t quite match the brilliance of Miranda’s wit, the sheer energy and spectacle onscreen – coupled with top-notch singers and performances – makes In The Heights both a grand entry in the pantheon of movie musicals and the perfect film to bring back the theatrical experience.
Lights up on Washington Heights, as we follow the lives of the inhabitants of a block of immigrants and dreamers in New York City one hot summer. At the center of it all is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a Dominican immigrant who owns the local bodega. Usnavi, whose dream is to earn enough to return to the D.R. to renovate and run his father’s beachside bar, introduces us to his friends and neighbors – as well as their dreams and obstacles. There’s Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), the first in her family to graduate high school, only to find the pressures of Stanford and her heritage may be too difficult to overcome, despite the support of her loving father (Jimmy Smits). There’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), a striving climber who hopes to earn enough money for business school, and still pines for his high school girlfriend, Nina. There’s Usnavi’s lazy, but street smart, activist cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and his dream to change the neighborhood for the better. There’s the gossipy salon ladies Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the latter of whom dreams of becoming a fashion designer, and whom Usnavi is madly in love with. And bringing them all together is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her Broadway role), the neighborhood matriarch who immigrated to the U.S. in 1943 and cares for her surrogate family through cooking, dancing, and her frequent plea for “Paciencia y Fe” (“Patience and Faith”). All of their dreams will be tested as they deal with financial burdens, gentrification, self-doubt, a massive blackout, and the lingering question of who won the recent lottery jackpot. But one thing is for certain: anything is possible when you have a community to support you.
If there’s one thing we could count on with Jon M. Chu directing, it’s spectacle. Heights is a very classical musical, where everything between the musical numbers involves very on-the-nose explanations of the themes. Therefore, to elevate the story and the emotions, the musical sequences must be up to snuff, blending singing, dancing, acting, and the magic of the movies together to create a treat for the eyes, ears, and soul. And thankfully, Chu does just that. For the first time since the whimsy of Chicago, a director truly understands how to shoot a musical sequence dynamically. Chu stages each musical number in an important New York location, which both ties into the themes and promises for splendid Technicolor performances. There’s the local beauty salon, the club, the park, the bodega, the fire escape, and, in the film’s best sequence, the pool. Holy sh*t does “96,000” live up to the hype, combining layers upon layers of different styles of choreography as the city comes to life with the promise of a life-changing lottery payout. Each sequence has something impressive in its own right – “Blackout” features some impeccable editing to create a montage sensation, “The Club” is one of the best-choreographed sequences in multiple decades, and Abuela Claudia’s solo “Paciencia Y Fe” is breathtakingly gorgeous (and aided by Broadway star Merediz’s vocals).
And I can’t forget “Carnival del Barrio,” the film’s longest musical sequence that erupts into a West Side Story-esque rapid cut of each culture in the neighborhood performing their own dance in a sort of friendly competition. It’s brilliant, it’s exhilarating, and it’s exactly the type of filmmaking I want more of in my musicals. Each sequence features an almost childish whimsy, using movie magic to insert jokes and an almost magic-like aesthetic to the music. There are insert bubbles, dancing wigs, animated doodles, and dancing reflections in the window. Some of these asides work, some don’t, but they all demonstrate a director willing to take chances in staging and execution, as opposed to just putting the camera in the corner and telling the actors “We’ll fix your bad singing and dancing in post.” In fact, the only number that doesn’t totally work is “Breathe,” which, while sung beautifully by Grace, is weirdly portrayed as upbeat and happy despite being about her emotional turmoil. Still, it’s rare enough to see a film that has to grapple with intellectual songs and lyrics, so I’m willing to give Heights a pass so long as its lighting, cinematography, editing, and choreography stay so strongly on point.
Meanwhile, in terms of filmmaking, Chu continues to prove himself as a successful director in his own right. Sure, there are a few missteps in his first true musical outing (he staged dance sequences previously in Crazy Rich Asians and the early Step Up films). The sound mix is a little messy, leaving the music louder than the singers (a problem remedied with proper theater speakers). And editor Myron Kerstein, despite some impressive cuts in time with the numbers, most certainly needs to cool it with the slicing – just give the film time to breathe while the actors look pretty and dance good, for crying out loud! But as a whole, Chu runs a tight ship, keeping things stylish and sharp from beginning to end. The cinematography by Alice Brooks is sumptuous throughout, capturing colors and lights in the most dazzling way. Speaking of well-shot things, Chu is still the master of food porn, as he and Brooks pause the action to linger on Abuela’s delicious cooking. Travelling throughout the city is filmed with Indiana Jones-esque whimsy, utilizing subway maps to track journeys and the passage of time. Oh, and there’s a solid Hamilton reference too, if you know what to look for. This is a well-shot, well-made film, and Chu should feel proud of his work here.
In fact, my only real quibbles come in story between the musical numbers. Now, I want to make it clear: I’m a huge fan of the stage show. I think it is structurally and thematically mature, perhaps even more so than Hamilton. Obviously, changes have to be made to make this a more accessible film, and therefore condensing the play’s richness. As is, the story is still relatively smart, playing like a take on Do The Right Thing. Therefore, so long as the story of gentrification affecting a neighborhood and immigrants fighting to make their dreams come true manages to get the themes across, it is unfair to spend too much time harping on “But in the play…” That’s just lazy criticism. However, there are some changes that, I believe, hurt the film – logically and thematically. For example, the lyrics of “Champagne” make explicit references to the bodega, so when the location is swapped to Usnavi’s apartment, these unchanged references make no sense. And no matter how well the film sticks its landing, the framing device of Usnavi telling a group of children the story on the beach just doesn’t work. However, the film’s greatest mixed-bag comes in the ways the film “updates” its material, utilizing plot points from future Quiara Alegría Hudes plays to reference current events.
As can often be the case with “modernizing” stories, a desire for immediacy can often damage a film’s timelessness. For example, as dated as the slang in West Side Story may seem, its centralized focus on racism and love make the film universal. In adapting her own script, Hudes has softened some of the original show’s edges in order to add themes more “of the now.” They are important topics that need to be discussed, and the inclusion of DACA is an important (and relatively well-handled) update, but the majority of changes feel tacked on and oversimplified. One change in particular that irked me involves Nina citing an offensive comment she received from a Stanford regent and getting searched by security as her reasons for dropping out. Miranda has spoken several times about how he always balked at producers’ desire to “spice up” Nina’s arc because they simply didn’t understand the drama or importance of being the first in your family to attend college. These types of microaggressions are important to talk about (hell, Get Out is a movie full of them), but not at the cost of a story’s central arc. Plus, are we to believe that a girl who grew up in the barrio during both Bloomberg AND De Blasio’s New York has never encountered stop-and-frisk? As I said, none of these changes outright damage the film’s story or its important themes, but it does keep the film from achieving the strength it could have held.
Still, despite these grievances, I can’t be too mad. After all, the film blessed us with this cast, and I can’t think of a better musical ensemble since…Chicago? After all, not only are all these performers charismatic and gifted dancers – they can also sing! At the center of it all is Ramos, a star-to-be if I’ve ever seen one. Ramos has such powerful charisma that it shines through each and every scene. His happiness is palpable, his love is visceral, and his pain is heartbreaking – it helps that Ramos is capable of pulling off the rare feat of crying from the corner of his eye. His charisma is matched by his younger costars, Barrera, Grace, and Hawkins. Barerra is excellent as romantic lead Vanessa, singing and dancing with great enthusiasm, and her song “It Won’t Be Long Now” is a standout. Meanwhile, Grace, an accomplished Latin singer-songwriter, has magnetic presence as Nina, even if her big solo isn’t served well by the filmmaking. And Hawkins…sh*t, does Hawkins have kinetic star power. He’s been waiting for a moment to shine since his work as Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton, and given a chance to show joy and excitement and love, he proves himself a successful romantic lead with great aplomb. He’s a treat whenever he’s onscreen, and if this foursome is a vision of our Hollywood future, we’re in great shape.
However, the best performances come from the more seasoned performers – specifically, the one-two punch of Jimmy Smits and Olga Merediz. Merediz benefits not only from her humorous asides as the traditional neighborhood abuela (her high-pitched greeting is hilarious and lovely each and every time), but her power ballad “Paciencia y Fe,” beautifully song and emotionally wrought. Smits, meanwhile, only sings one brief verse (“Good mooornnnniiinngg, Usnaviiiiii!”), but my God, does he give it his all during that verse. When coupled with his loving fatherly energy and the emotional weight of a cinematic veteran, he steals the movie each and every scene. I also want to shout out Gregory Diaz IV, who could easily have been portrayed as a Disney-esque teeny-bopper brat, but my God is he fantastic. He turns even the most cliched lines into comedic jokes and passionate outbursts. The salon ladies aren’t quite as funny as they are onstage, but I’m glad Broadway legend Daphne Rubin-Vega finally has a chance to shine (God, can she sing), and Stephanie Beatriz is hilarious as the ditzy Carla. My only critique is that the new addition to the salon team, Dascha Polanco, plays as a bizarre caricature, unworthy of the actress’ talents and unfunny throughout. Oh, and while egregious cameos often fall flat, Miranda’s appearance as the local Piragua Guy is perfect – brief and comical and pleasant without overstaying its welcome. It’s a near-perfect ensemble, from top to bottom.
In The Heights is a colorful, charisma-driven tribute to why we see movies: for sheer, unadulterated fun. It’s not perfect, and some of the changes are slightly disappointing. But honestly? I’m not sure I care. I can gripe all I want about the film’s issues – I have and I likely will continue to do so. But at the end of the day, I’ve still seen this movie three times in a week. It’s an adrenaline shot to the soul, that will leave you smiling more times than you will roll your eyes. It’s why I love musicals, it’s why I love movies, and it’s why I thoroughly enjoy Lin-Manuel Miranda’s freshman effort.
In The Heights is now playing in theaters. It is also streaming on HBO Max through July 11th