Directed By Jon M. Chu
Starring – Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace
The Plot – The story centers on a variety of characters living in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, on the northern tip of Manhattan. At the center of the show is Usnavi (Ramos), a bodega owner who looks after the aging Cuban lady next door, pines for the gorgeous girl (Melissa Barrera) working in the neighboring beauty salon and dreams of winning the lottery and escaping to the shores of his native Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, Nina (Grace), a childhood friend of Usnavi’s, has returned to the neighborhood from her first year at college with surprising news for her parents, who have spent their life savings on building a better life for their daughter. Ultimately, Usnavi and the residents of the close-knit neighborhood get a dose of what it means to be home.
Rated PG-13 for some adult language and suggestive references
– Masterful captivation. After his dazzling work in 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians”, Jon M. Chu was tapped to bring the same kind of spectacle in transferring the energy of the stage to the magic of the big screen, succeeding with a spirited hybrid that brings forth some unique measures of identity that allows “In the Heights” to stand out in musical essence. The color scheme feels most evident here, radiating a barrage of scintillating sparkle and sunbaked shine that supplants no shortage of breathtaking imagery for the scale of the production, seducing us with a permeating gloss that captures the beauty and imagination of this intimate series of neighborhoods fleshed out with big stake circumstance. On top of this, it’s the infectious energy of the tonal consistency that breathes an inspirational air to classic musicals of the past, all the while playing into the pride for the neighborhood that the characters harvest with such unapologetic glee. Chu bottles enough aspects of both respective media’s, stage and screen, to conjure up a project that feels entirely fresh on its own merits, giving us a presentation in pageantry that proves every dollar in its budget was left on the screen within Chu’s fantastical rendering.
– Summertime cinematography. Alice Brooks pitches a slice of perfection that visually transfers the heartbeat of the neighborhood in its collection of wondrous framing and cerebral camera movements, prescribing an essence of Summer that bleeds its presence into each frame. Brooks is asked to do a lot in venturing between on-ground, overhead, and even underwater photography, steering us through with a consistency that often captures the velocity of life moving in and around these characters with unshakable urgency. Because of such, so much of the imagery itself attains artistic merit for the way any of it could easily be cut and shaped for the benefit of wall space anywhere, all the while valuing Washington Heights and the Latin culture with a substantially stylish conscience that is alluring without feeling distracting to the beats of the narrative.
– Thick themes. Aside from “In the Heights” being a story of cultural relevance, it also combines a collection of conflicts and life lessons that somehow effectively magnetize together for the integrity of the heart of the story. Neighborhood gentrification, family peer pressure, the concept of home, and fighting for what you believe in are just a few of the aspects that this script presents in humbling out our characters, equally nourishing us the audience with a stern social commentary whose awareness I applaud for transcending this as something that could’ve just been another entertaining piece of fictional cinema. Instead, screenwriters Quiara Alegria Hudes and the great Lin-Manuel Miranda speak volumes to the abundance of issues plaguing theirs and many other minority dominated neighborhoods, cementing this musical with a rare enveloping for the genre that inspires the kind of change that it wishes to see in the problematic world surrounding its slice of neighborhood nirvana.
– Exceptional cast. Triple threat Anthony Ramos is most certainly the stand-out here, serving as the consistent protagonist to the story that forces him to endure the many highs and lows of an unforeseen vulnerability from a coming of age story in one fateful summer. Ramos, with co-star Melissa Barrera, exude one of the finest samplings of on-screen chemistry that I have seen in quite sometime, outlining a believability to their dynamic that further plays into the lived-in quality of their portrayals, giving us many starry-eyed stares to colorfully illustrate the young love between them. In addition to this duo, the work of Leslie Grace as Nina was equally magnificent, and allowed her the freedom of exploration emotionally for her character that comes in the form of many unforeseen obstacles that shape the character for the better by film’s end. However, the stand out for me was definitely Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, a charismatic teenager with no shortage of comical muscle to inflict towards several scene-stealing instances.
– Musical flare. The most important aspect of any musical is the tracks of the soundtrack themselves that vividly paint the details and exposition of its assorted characters, and in this regard, as composer, Miranda has once again hit it out of the park with a collection of ear-worm tracks that triumph with musical and thematic complexity. For instance, the tracks themselves are instrumentally rendered with elements of the surrounding environment that articulate the music in the streets labeling established early in the film’s first act. From there, the performances embody a naturalistic conversation between characters at the beginning, before evolving consistently into the performance aspect of their inspiration. This not only immerses us further into the layers of the exchange, but also speaks wonders for the creativity of Miranda as a composer, who shifts and bends lyrics and instruments to play towards the personality of his characters. My favorites are between the title track, “In the Heights”, a thunderous stadium epic that captures the pride and immensity of small numbers of population banning together, as well as “96,000”, a dreamer’s tale of greed and ambition told through fantastical circumstance.
– Complimenting story. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the movie for me, and one that I wish a majority of other musicals would take is the balance between song and storytelling that keeps some of the pressure off of the former for the abundance of music asked of it in a nearly two and a half hour sitting. In this respect, Miranda offers several sequences of music-halting interaction between characters, which not only allows their personalities to distinguish from one another when compared to the whimsical nature of consistency during a musical number, but also allows us the audience ample time to capably interpret the stakes and circumstance of everything happening in rapid fire sequencing. It is a musical first-hand, yes, but in adapting this from the stage to the screen, does require justification for doing so, allowing monumental emotional resonance between on-screen talent that doesn’t require musical meandering to sell its circumstance.
– Authenticity. This is realized in the realm of its cultural heritage, primarily in the Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Spanish speaking demographics that the movie doesn’t approach on just a surface level delve, but a psychological one as well. The terrifically ambitious production value brings forth examples in the dancing, the wardrobe, the food, and especially the community, that are fully realized in giving us an abundance of depth and focus to the experience that values them in ways very few other films in Latin barrios resonate on. This is where Chu is especially the ace in the hole, because he sees these aspects of production as ways to vividly paint these people’s influence on the surrounding environment, all the while exerting an abundance of pride that plays properly towards distinguishing that people, and not things, is what makes a home a home. It’s truly one of the more quintessential watches for Latin culture, and like Chu’s previous film brings with it an awareness for rarely depicted demographics that the world needs so much more of.
– Overstuffed. Even with the abundance of benefits that I previously gushed about, the movie can’t escape this cluttered feeling that comes as a result of an unnecessary 143 minute run time that tested my patience. This wouldn’t be a problem if the pacing came accordingly in maintaining my interests, but the third act in particular stalls in this respect, delaying the resolution in a way that could’ve easily cut fifteen minutes from the finished product, and had this film lose nothing as a consequence to the execution its storytelling. In addition to this, some of the songs themselves continue on for far too long, and feed into an overall padding out of the product for the film’s second half that proves less would’ve meant a whole lot more. The ending itself is finished accordingly enough, but there’s one particular sequence with around twenty minutes left that would’ve bottled it so much more effectively in maintaining the momentum of the dramatic resolution that does unfortunately overstay its welcome a bit.
– Unfulfilled potential. Much of my credit to the characterization goes to the screenwriters for valuing these characters as influential ingredients to a bigger cause. However, the pay-offs for some of the supporting tiers left plenty more to be desired in the allowance paid to their evolution, resolving them with an air of incomplete disappointment that I wish the movie would’ve done a better job of concluding. Three of the aspects that I use are that of Nina’s plot with her father, Kevin (Played by Jimmy Smits), her rekindling relationship with Benny, and Sonny’s evolving campaign to save the neighborhood from outsider’s gentrification. The second of those does receive a climax tying it all together, but it resonates with a complete lack of emotional manner that dramatically undersold its purpose and meaning to the story, practically forcing them to disappear when their respective subplots could’ve added more of a satisfying pay-off to the lack of one that never materialized for me.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+