Seven years before the Pulitzer Prize-winning global phenomenon that is HAMILTON opened on Broadway in 2015 and blew the roof off staged musicals forever, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical the Tony Award-winning IN THE HEIGHTS opened in the same theater in 2008. Now, like “Hamilton,” it’s also a movie, a glorious movie more powerful than the original staged production. This cinematic reincarnation tweaks the order and number of some of the songs and characters, and expands the physical and thematic landscape using all manner of movie craft which could be mustered by “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu. The result is a visual and emotional feast that lifts the original material to dizzying heights at a time when its themes around immigration, diversity, identity, and the American dream are more elevated in our consciousness than ever before…
The film begins quietly, sweetly like a fairytale about a “suenito” a “little dream” of a better life and a place that was disappearing. A young man named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos as a soulful everyman in the role Miranda played on B’way) sits by a beautiful island beach telling this story to a group of wide-eyed children. This new framing device is a little confusing as his tale flashes back to a tight knit NYC neighborhood called Washington Heights, home to a diverse Latinx community– Dominican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, South American and beyond–“where the streets were made of music.”
The film begins to pulse as the camera (Alice Brooks, cinematography) roams the street, scaling fire escapes and windows framing families watching kids playing on the pavement below. We follow Usnavi, now rapping out the title song and stepping on a manhole cover, setting it spinning to the beat of the lives on this block. This opening sequence is a dazzler, every edit (Myron Kerstein) a spark illuminating a cross section of characters, each in search of search of some version of the American dream, each instantly charismatic and relatable.
Usnavi runs the bodega but dreams of opening his own restaurant bar back in the Dominican Republic. He’s crushing on gorgeous Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Strolling back to the block fresh from her first year at Stanford is Nina (Leslie Grace) brilliant, independent and the pride and joy of her hardworking father Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) who owns the car service. Nina reconnects with her love interest, the dynamic Benny (Corey Hawkins) the car dispatcher and Usnavi’s best friend. Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and her team have big dreams for her beauty salon. Hovering over all is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz who played the role on Broadway) a character written for maximum schmaltz. Childless herself, “Abuela” has adopted the entire neighborhood, a grandmother to all. I always have trouble with this character as written, and always want it played a little against the grain, less overtly wise and wonderful. No luck here…
…until– Abuela becomes the centerpiece of the film’s most conceptually brilliant production number “Paciencia y Fe.” The scene happens at the pivot point of the film and is set on moving subway trains, lives in transition between platforms and portals to parts unknown. The dancers gowned in white put me in mind of Alvin Ailey’s profound spiritual masterpiece “Revelations.” Here the choreography gives shape to the dynamism and complexity of life, the fear and promise spurred by change, and more specifically, the generational immigrant experience of straddling different worlds.
Miranda and writer Quiara Alegria Hudes have expanded on these themes with an addition to Hudes’s original play storyline. A new character, Usnavi’s teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) is a DREAMer, born in the U.S. and wanting to stay, but having trouble getting documented which sharpens the work’s relevant focus now. The plot line also makes way for another character–Sonny’s father Gapo played by Mark Anthony in a short but potent few minutes on screen.
This ravishing multi-talented cast sings, dances, and acts up a storm in explosively jubilant production numbers. One finds Vanessa in an after hours club hoping to stoke a response from shy Usnavi with some of the most incendiary choreography this side of the equator. Later, as the neighborhood withers on a sizzling summer night, Daniela & company fire things up with an exultant “Carnival del Barrio.” Many of the musical numbers pay unabashed homage to a glittering history of American movie musicals with a delirium of references. There’s “West Side Story“‘s bricked cityscape now framing sprawling, latin-inflected hip hop ballets. There’s a splashy Busby Berkeley number in a city swimming pool that champion swimmer turned movie star Esther Williams could dive right into. There’s a gravity-defying pas de deux, up and down the sides and rooftop of an apartment building that recalls Fred Astaire’s topsy turvy tap dance up and down the walls and ceiling in “Royal Wedding.”
Weaving its way throughout the film is the creative spirit of Lin-Manuel Miranda whom we spot in the flesh in the first scene pushing a “piragua” cart of shaved ice and fruit syrup through the barrio. He’s working from the ground up, excavating his own ethnic experience to release a voice the world recognizes as universal. He’s also helped open up a fresh channel of diverse talent into the mainstream. As all of us re-emerge post pandemic into a summer of newfound community, this film–though a tad long at 2 hours 23– might heighten the mood even more. DON’T MISS “IN THE HEIGHTS” now in theaters and on HBO MAX!