Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
“Are we Puerto Rican enough? Are we American enough?”
Quiara Alegría Hudes asked herself these nagging identity questions during a first meeting, years ago, with fellow co-writer Lin Manuel-Miranda. The two were about to combine their stories into the eventual award-winning Broadway musical, “In the Heights.”
From the off-Broadway to Broadway stage and now into movie theaters, Hudes and Miranda’s efforts already netted Tony Awards, Drama Desk wins, and the original cast recording took home a Grammy. But the idea started, at least for Miranda, with an initial draft of the musical while he was in college. Such a humble origin of a blockbuster phenomenon is an inspiring story unto itself. That story somewhat mirrors the existential crisis themes that emerged from the stage.
Washington Heights, the neighborhood that acts as the show’s catalyst, is in the northernmost part of Manhattan, an area that stretches for close to 40 blocks. While the Broadway production understandably chained the action to the stage, the movie adaptation takes advantage of the cinematic form by shooting on location. “In the Heights” is a colorful, romantic vision that’s just grounded enough to pull at the movie audience’s heartstrings regardless of whether the cultural representations are intimately known to viewers.
The film stars Anthony Ramos (see “Hamilton”) as Usnavi, a bodega owner in Washington Heights. He saves his money in hopes of returning to his home in the Dominican Republic. His best friend is Benny (Corey Harkins), who works as a taxi dispatcher at a business owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). Kevin’s daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace), attends college at Stanford. When she returns to the Heights after her freshman year, a dormant romance with Benny reemerges.
Meanwhile, a budding designer named Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) longs to move out of the neighborhood and break into the fashion world. Will similar ambitions bring these two attractive young people together? Or will their desires for life elsewhere part them?
Usnavi’s right hand in the grocery store is Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), a crafty teen who is happy to intervene with Vanessa on behalf of his timid boss. It’s Sonny’s story, that of an undocumented dreamer, that I found the most impactful. And it helps that Diaz plays the boy with such confidence and presence. If there is one break-out star here (and there are many), Diaz is it.
Ramos and Diaz have great friendship chemistry that rises above the otherwise familiar romantic entanglements. It’s a story that hits home in modern America. Do immigrants have to leave this place to be happy? Is this the message that we want the world to know about our country? Hudes and Miranda answer these thorny questions by reminding us of what it means to be American and the magic that exists all around this nation.
The story follows a few steamy summer days in the community as a power blackout looms in the background. We’re informed of the passage of time with title cards telling us how close we are to the outage and thereafter.
Olga Merediz reprises her Tony-nominated role as Abuela Claudia, the Cuban-born grandmotherly figure that is the bridge to the old world. Her musical number is sincere and beautifully staged.
A key plot point involves the announcement that someone purchased a winning lottery ticket at Usnavi’s bodega. Just who might have that ticket, worth $96,000, is a closely guarded secret. And as prominently displayed in trailers and released clips, the breaking news of the winning ticket plays out during a trip to the Highbridge Park public pool.
This remarkable musical number shot at the historic location is an early highlight. These scenes help to deepen our understanding of each character’s place in the community. And while most of the film, especially certain magical realism moments, feels non-diegetic, this sequence flows as the most natural. A realist moment peeks with a shot where the camera dives into the pool and under the water as the music is temporarily muffled.
The dialogue features a feel-wheeling fusion of song and spoken word. It’s impressive how seamless the actors’ transition between the two styles. Compare the laughable “Cats” from 2019. “In the Heights” sets the standard in this decade for how to do a musical adaptation the right way.
In bringing the show to the screen, Hudes, who pens the screenplay, made tough decisions, working closely with director Jon M. Chu (see “Crazy Rich Asians”).
“For me, it wasn’t about cutting; it was about focusing,” said Chu about the tricky process.
And to that end, changes might frustrate and excite fans of the stage production. For example, the character of Camilla Rosario, the mother of Nina and Kevin’s wife, does not appear in the movie. But some stories are expanded and explored. Viewers might want to pay close attention to Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz). It’s a subtle suggestion that deepens the unique inclusiveness of the narrative.
“In the Heights” universal themes, concerning following one’s dreams and finding a place where you can be yourself, should connect with a broad viewership. Now fully six months into 2021, I can safely say that it’s one of the year’s best films so far.
And while it is available on the small screen via HBO Max, treat yourself and see it in the theater with a quality sound system. It’s an experience that will have you humming, tapping your foot and pondering the American experiment.