If there is one thing we all need this summer it is an exhilarating feel-good movie to lift our spirits and take us out of our post-Covid doom. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “In the Heights” is just that and so much more. Director Jon M Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) gives us this exuberant block party in NY’s Washington Heights which may be based on indiscriminate racism towards the Latino & Hispanic communities, yet still somehow comes over more as a celebration of life.
It’s a little over 20 years since Miranda started writing this piece with Quiara Alegría Hudes which ended up Off-Broadway then Broadway in 2008 picking up 4 of the 13 Tony’s it was nominated for. Yet somehow it has kept fresh and relevant today even if the script has seen changes, After all the word Dreamers had yet to enter into our vocabulary back then.
Chu shot a lot of the movie on the streets of the Heights which gives it not just more authenticity but such infectious high octane energy. Our ‘guide’ is Bodega owner Usnavi (an award-worthy performance by Anthony Ramos in the role that Miranda had played on Broadway). As he narrates the plot he is sitting on a beach in his native Dominican Republic telling his young daughter and her friends about his life in the Heights which he had always intended as a stepping stone to get back to the home of his birth.
It’s a long story packed full of song and dance, a great deal of which Chu, who has a younger audience in mind, directs as flash mob scenes. It’s all very effective as there is never a single dull moment in the whole lengthy 2 hours 23 mins.
It’s Usnaavi who introduces us to a colorful coterie of neighborhood characters who make up the ensemble cast. All of them are doing their best to keep their own identities and lifestyles in a rapidly changing city. Some are real standout performances such as Olga Merediz repeating her role as everyone’s Abuela for which she had been nominated for a Tony when she played her on Broadway. Whereas Daphne Rubin-Vega (Rent) simply shines as Daniela the beauty shop owner who is forced out of the Heights by gentrification and rising rent prices.
One of her employees is manicurist Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who is marking time painting nails in the salon until she can follow her dream of getting her own apartment and becoming a fashion designer. The first part is the toughest as Landlords refuse to give leases to even qualified Latino tenants.
Vanessa is also the apple in Usanavi’s eyes too as In The Heights is also about romance. That also includes local beauty Nina (Leslie Grace) who had managed to get out of the Heights and win a place to study at Stamford, only to realize that she desperately missed her homies. Including her ex-boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works as her dad’s dispatcher at his cab company.
Besides Ramos, probably the biggest scene-stealer is Gregory Diaz IV who plays Usnavi’s innocent wide-eyed younger cousin who Usnavi insists on fathering.
The excitement all comes to a head when word spreads around the neighborhood that Usnavi’s Bodega had sold a winning lottery ticket worth some $96000 but nobody knows who bought it. Now that life is getting increasingly expensive in the Heights, everybody has plans for what they would do with the windfall if it had been theirs.
Everyone knows how expensive life has become in their corner of the city but even more important, Usnavi acknowledges that it has got so much harder for his community to be accepted in society at large. And that such acceptances should never come at the cost of losing the essential aspects of their heritage and culture.
Chu does real justice to both this extraordinary musical, which is a truly wonderful celebration of life and he so succinctly captures a community that he is not part of. Expect to see his name being mentioned when its award time
Next on Chu’s list is the movie adaptation of Wicked. Those Witches can be happy they are in very safe hands
Labels: 2021, Anthony Ramos, Jon M Chu, Lin-Manuel Miranda, musical