From a cinematic standpoint, it could be seen as dramatic irony as far as the role diversity played in 2020. While many performers and filmmakers of different backgrounds were poised to break through with audiences, the Covid-19 pandemic delayed many films, while others were pushed to various streaming services. In the Heights was among those that were delayed, and yet it was ultimately the right choice. This is a vibrant, joyous musical that exudes a level of confidence from director Jon M. Chu while doing the work to properly adapt the stage musical developed by Quiara Alegria Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda. While the show remains unseen by me, from what I can tell, even with a bit of sanding off of the edges, it’s time to bring out the champagne and enjoy this magnificent celebration of community and heritage.
While relying on a superfluous framing device to allow Anthony Ramos’ Usnavi de la Vega to deliver a fairytale-like story to his young onlookers, the film primarily follows a few characters living in the tight-knit community of Washington Heights in New York. Usnavi is a humble bodega owner with hopes of moving to the Dominican Republic to honor his legacy. Benny (Corey Hawkins) works as a taxi cab dispatcher with dreams of opening his own business.
Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny used to go steady until she went off to college. She returned for entirely understandable reasons related to financial support that has become difficult for her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), owner of the taxi cab service. And then there’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), another young adult with hopes of leaving the barrio to move into an apartment downtown. Usnavi has long been infatuated with Vanessa, but other forms of conflict develop as we follow these characters through a critical time in their lives.
Even in looking at this story in some basic blocks of text, it’s clear In the Heights is less about a plot-driven narrative and more focused on the lives these characters live. The film wants to explore the culture that makes up this community. It does so by way of multiple elaborate musical numbers. They range from a clever level of synchronicity as characters walk up and down the block to an elaborately choreographed sequence set at a large public pool with 500 extras. Thanks to the lyricism of Miranda’s songs, the film’s vibe is not only captivating and fun, but it also helps add to the details presented on screen and the specificity of the group we are watching.
This is perfect material for director Jon M. Chu, whose background in musical-related media, including the dance films Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D (which are great), as well as the equally colorful and lively Crazy Rich Asians, allowed him to truly capitalize on making a full-on musical, complete with an actual budget to obtain a level of scale. Collaborating so effectively with Hudes and Miranda to deliver a culturally specific film to provide Latino representation only adds to the accomplishment.
For nearly two and a half hours, at a pace that only slightly lets up toward the end, getting to know these characters means taking a somewhat episodic trip through their barrio and learning what matters most to them. With an understanding of the reasonably loose plot, there’s so much more to appreciate when seeing aspects of this heightened interpretation of Washington Heights brought to life. While Chu may not share the same background as Miranda and Hudes, the research and collaboration of all involved allow the film to portray the area, from the costume design to the food on display, with a level of authenticity that best serves the tone.
As In the Heights was initially developed back in the early 2000s, finding a way to balance the ideas from that time with some modern takes concerning the same area may have provided some challenge. Though, if anything, the timing only feels more appropriate as far as a cinematic release, given the volume diverse voices have had in recent years and the persistence that has come with those supporting immigrants at a time when certain rights have been put into question. It’s all the more fitting for drama to stem from a possible threat against Dreamers in a film where each of our characters hopes to achieve their own sueñito. That said, it never overwhelms a movie where the stakes are so individually focused.
The real drama comes from the minor struggles these characters face regarding whether or not to move away from their home, how to handle changing times as far as money is concerned, and whether or not a community can thrive under certain pressures related to gentrification and underrepresentation. Understandably, this cinematic adaptation had to lose some elements from the stage musical. At least one character has been dropped, and one could argue this is far less gritty than it could have been. However, there’s a clear choice being made in handling this story, and that’s to have it play as something meant to inspire.
It’s not all easy, of course, which is seen in the performances. Ramos, Hawkins, and Barrera are wonderful in their roles, but their drama is largely cursory compared to the others. As far as lead characters go, Grace’s Nina may be the most interesting, as she is in a position to be the first in her family to receive a college education, but at the cost of making life harder for her father. Smits is, of course, great as well, but it’s the way the film bends around these characters, adjusting for their decisions, that becomes especially intriguing. For these characters, their barrio is more than just a home; it informs how they look, dress, and feel.
That’s no clearer than when considering Olga Merediz, who reprises her Tony-nominated role as Abuela Claudia. Serving as a loving grandmother to all in the barrio, she’s not only an excellent figurehead for the area but the film’s MVP. The warmth that comes from her character plays to the best of what we want to see. Her big musical moment where she sings “Paciencia y Fe” is a clear showstopper. It’s a great symbol for how well the film works as something relatable without needing a deep definition of every aspect.
To enjoy In the Heights is to embrace what’s being put on display. The film is full of life, humor, and big personas. I could harp more on what the film may lack in taking a deeper dive into the less savory sides of the barrio (Marc Anthony’s brief cameo seems to emblemize this aspect), but the primary intent of this film seems clear. This musical is not afraid to shoot for magical realism in moments, as we watch two characters dance on the outside walls of an apartment building. It’s a film where there risks characters take are balanced by acknowledging the hundreds of stories also going on, simply by watching life continue on the streets surrounding them. And it’s a big show where the fireworks are not just in the sky but constantly on display, as we watch a group of likable, largely Latino people reflect on dreams that can come true while letting the music breathe life into them all.