Travis Leamons // Film Critic
IN THE HEIGHTS
Rated PG-13, 144 minutes.
Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lin-Manuel Miranda
The film is now playing in theaters and available to stream to HBO Max subscribers at no additional cost.
Exiting IN THE HEIGHTS, I had a sense of excitement. The feeling you get from breathing the air after a rainstorm—a change in atmosphere. The buoyancy carried over on the drive home as I passed underneath the famous “Be Someone” bridge in Houston, TX. An outsider looking in sees a bunch of graffiti, but it is a representation of pride and the belief in oneself to the community. Being powerful regardless of color, class, or creed.
After a turbulent, cloistered, wash-your-hands-and-stand-six-feet-away-from-me 2020, a release – both emotional and physical – was needed, but where, and how, and when? Could a movie be the answer? The short answer is yes if you are IN THE HEIGHTS.
This is the one. This is the one you tell your movie buds about. This is the one you tell that one friend from college that really isn’t into the musicals to go see. This is the one you skip its premiere on HBO Max to watch on the biggest screen possible; the digital images glowing into your eyes like fireflies twinkling like stars in a field at dusk.
It’s an awakening. Binge-watching bears coming out of social isolation hibernation into a movie kaleidoscope, vibrant and euphoric, uplifting, and simply dynamite. If music has the power to soothe the savage beast, then the right movie musical can lift them up as if they mistook a cup of coffee for one of Wonka’s fizzy lifting drinks.
It’s the height of summer. The temperature climbs, Coke bottles sweat in the shade, and the scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just long enough to tickle your nose. Where are we? Washington Heights. Say its name, so you don’t forget it. WASHINGTON HEIGHTS! The uppermost borough of Manhattan is a tight-knit community. A neighborhood constellation of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Caribbean residents, each with their own sueñito (“little dream”), and at its center is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the luminous bodega owner saving his pennies so he can return home to the Dominican Republic and have a life unrestrained. Until then, to get through the daily grind, he shares his hopes and dreams through song, ushering us into a world pure in soul, pure in heart, and where every day is worth celebrating.
Originally a 2008 Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, IN THE HEIGHTS bursts into the theaters like the Kool-Aid Man making an entrance. The eight-minute opening number as our hero rustles out of bed and opens the corner store with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) might as well be a “Welcome Back” card greeting us back to the movies. The musical exposition sets up the tale, introduces the supporting players, and is a tasty appetizer for what’s to come. We have Nina (Leslie Grace), a bright girl struggling to find her place at Stanford making her return to the barrio; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who works in a salon to make ends meet; and Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), working as a cab company dispatcher for Nina’s father (Jimmy Smits).
Because film is a much different medium than a stage production, some judicious edits were made to refine Usnavi’s tale and the tangential characters and their struggles. Songs are dropped in favor of overall length, and song placement is rearranged at times, but the sentiment remains. IN THE HEIGHTS is a celebration of life, family heritage, and following your heart.
Every scene radiates thanks to director Jon M. Chu. Three years ago, he directed CRAZY RICH ASIANS for Warner Bros. Pictures. The romantic comedy was a watershed moment for Asians on screen. They weren’t playing a stereotype or subject to ridicule. They were present. They were seen. Now it is time for the dreamers. Latino and Latinx voices. That Chu is part of two movements in promoting diversity in cinema is a testament to his talents as a filmmaker. Some will see an incoherent musical as we move from natural street scenes to soundstage confines; its jarring style just reinforces the conflicting emotions we all go through.
The entire ensemble is stellar. Anthony Ramos and Corey Hawkins are topflight, with the latter upstaging both Spider-Man and Lionel Ritchie when it comes to the laws of gravity. The women of Washington Heights are the strength, with Barrera and Grace delivering star-making performances. So many memorable music numbers, like “96,000,” recalling scorching summers and the trip to the neighborhood pool. But the finest moment may be Olga Merediz reprising her Tony-nominated role as “Abuela” Claudia as she performs “Paciencia Y Fe.” Both joyous and heartbreaking.
A colorful musical in every possible way, IN THE HEIGHTS is a starburst. It’s a life-affirming dreamcatcher that’s energetic, full of love, life, and with a beat you hope never stops. Every day is a celebration. Remember that.