I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie musical on the big screen, as somehow I missed the two recent musicals that I thoroughly enjoyed when they hit cinemas – The Greatest Showman and Mamma Mia 2. In the Heights was supposed to come out exactly a year ago, June 2020, but like a bunch of other movies, it got delayed because of the pandemic.
To be perfectly honest, I actually am not too familiar with the subject matter as I didn’t know much about the original 2005 stage musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who a decade later found massive success with Hamilton). The story is based on a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes who also wrote the screenplay. Since I haven’t seen the play, I’m not sure just how different this adaptation is, but I’m aware they’ve made some changes.
The movie is set in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in the uppermost part Manhattan that’s predominantly Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. The movie opens in a sunny morning where we get to see a day in the life of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a Dominican native who owns a small grocery store on a corner street that he runs with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). We soon find out that Usnavi has been longing to return home reopen the beachside bar his late father used to own that was destroyed by a hurricane, and he’s close to realizing his sueñito (as in little dream) from all the years of saving up.
Dream is an overarching theme here as everyone in Usnavi’s circle has their own, as well as their own set of struggles. Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) longs to be a fashion designer, his good friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants to start his own business, and there’s Nina (Leslie Grace), the apple of the neighborhood who just returns from Stanford to almost a hero’s (well heroine in this case) welcome. Nina’s dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits) happens to be Benny’s boss who runs a taxi business, and he believes in her daughter’s education so much he’s willing to sacrifice his own company. Let’s not forget the matriarch of this tight-knit community, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the matriarch of the neighborhood who helps raise Usnavi. Apparently Merediz also played the role on the Broadway version for which she earned a Tony nomination.
There’s an infectious sense of joy that envelops you right from the start. Ramos is quite charismatic and instantly likable, which I think is as important as his ability to sing and dance. I’d say Usnavi is the heart of the movie, while Abuela is the soul, and I connect with their stories the most. Director Jon M. Chu has proven his robust visual flair and can deal with large sets and a bunch of cast members, as he displayed in the Step Up franchise and Crazy Rich Asians. He seems to up the ante even more here which made me go ‘how did they do that?!’ a few times while watching the scenes. The pool scene in the 96,000 musical number is one of those, which apparently took 600 extras and 3 days to film which he accomplished despite bad weather conditions that include thunder and lightning! That’s incredible as it looks as if that scene was supposed to depict one swelteringly-hot summer day!
One of my faves is actually the gravity-defying dancing scene on walls featuring Benny and Nina with the George Washington Bridge looming in the background during sunset. There are a bunch of amazing camera work by DP Alice Brooks, which captures the rapturous energy of the dance sequences with the large group of dancers, but also make it feel intimate and personal, such as when she zooms in to Usnavi’s face peering out of his window and you see the reflection of the dancers. The other standout, and perhaps the most emotionally-charged musical number to me is the one featuring Abuela as she reflects on her own past with her mama, coming to the States from Cuba. The song Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith) made me tear up and the sequence involving a subway is beautifully done. I heard an interview with Chu on MPR yesterday where he said each song had to ‘earn its way’ into the movie, and I’m glad THAT song made it.
Most of the songs are pretty fun though I honestly can’t remember any of them afterwards, but that’s more of my own personal taste in music. I think I remember the scenes more than the actual song depending on how much it resonates with me emotionally. Choreographer Christopher Scott sure has his work cut out for him creating ALL those riveting dance sequences, especially having to do some of the big ones on the streets of the Heights neighborhood itself where they had to close off from traffic. I appreciate the inventiveness of some of the numbers too, such as the awesome nail scene inside the hair salon.
Now, amidst the exuberant musical numbers and well-choreographed dance sequences, I have to admit it took me a bit of time to connect with most of the characters. As an immigrant myself, I do love that the movie is a celebration of Latinx culture and highlighting the uniquely-American experience through the eyes of immigrants. That said, I still expect a good, strong story I can hold on to. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the story isn’t good mind you, it’s just that I find it hard to focus on one storyline before another one steals my attention. For one, Usnavi’s story and his tentative relationship with Vanessa seems a bit shortchanged and overshadowed by SO many subplots, some more interesting than others.
Though Chu said all the songs had to earn its way into the movie, I feel that it’s not always the case. For one, the sequences involving Miranda as the Piragua seller, whose appearance is already pretty distracting enough given how hugely famous he is now, seems a bit indulgent. In particular, the the rivalry scene of him with an ice cream truck owner could’ve easily been cut out as it does not add anything to the story at all. There are a few other scenes I feel could be trimmed or removed completely. At 2h 23min, it felt really long by the end of the second act. It also doesn’t help that the third act drags a bit as the movie is overstuffed with themes ranging from racial issues to gentrification.
I’m baffled by the choice of framing the story through Usnavi telling the story to some kids on what appears to be a beachside bar, which made me think initially that he’s already in Dominican Republic. Perhaps they’re trying to convey the idea of teaching the next generation, but when it’s revealed at the end who those kids really are, it doesn’t really make sense.
A few other issues also prevent me from truly falling for this movie. Despite the initial chemistry between Usnavi and Vanessa, their romance lacks the sparks I expect from a movie like this. There’s also a lack of real conflicts in the story, the strives between the characters are pretty much resolved quickly just after the next song is done. The father/daughter issue of Kevin and Nina is a prime example, with the topical issue of DACA somehow inserted to help with the swift resolution. No matter how topical/aspirational, it feels tacked on.
Despite those narrative issues, I think it’s a well-crafted movie brimming with vibrancy and pulsing with sweet energy. I’m glad I saw the movie and given that I saw this during a prolonged heatwave, I was glad to be inside an air-conditioned theater! If you’re on the fence, I urge you to give this movie a shot on the big screen. Like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, it’s still a rarity to see movies starring actors of underrepresented groups, though of course it doesn’t mean this movie did everything right in terms of representation. As we walked to our cars after the movie, I commented to my friend who’s half Black Jamaican that most of the main actors have such fair skin, an issue that I see being raised on social media about the movie not being inclusive enough when it comes to dark-skinned Afro-Latinx. Chu recently also apologized for relegating darker-skinned South Asian people to background extras in Crazy Rich Asians.
So yeah, Hollywood still has a long way to go about proper representation, which is all the more reasons we need to see more films with diverse cast. In The Heights is definitely a fitting movie to celebrate Summer and welcome the movie-going experience after a pandemic.