I went into this one completely blind. I feel the need to state that up front, given my personal history with live theatre — particularly live musical theatre — documented in previous blog entries. Prior to watching this film, I was only vaguely aware that “In the Heights” was the Tony-winning smash that made Lin-Manuel Miranda a prominent Broadway name before “Hamilton” took his fame international. And I knew the play was greatly inspired by Manuel’s own upbringing in Washington Heights. Beyond that, I had no clue what I was in for with In the Heights.
So I’d like to start by addressing those like me, whose knowledge of Miranda’s work begins with “Hamilton” and no earlier. First of all, Miranda himself was obligingly given a small supporting role (and a musical number, and a post-credits scene) as a piragua vendor. A notable cameo role was given to Christopher Jackson, the erstwhile George Washington himself, also an alumnus of the original “In the Heights” Broadway cast. (He was Benny, by the way.) And of course “Hamilton” fans will have no trouble recognizing Anthony Ramos in the leading role originally played by Miranda. (Though it seems that Ramos had previously played Usnavi on Broadway at some point.)
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a certain “Hamilton” song used as a cheeky background gag.
Speaking of which, the songs make it abundantly clear that this was written by the same guy. The attitude, the energy, the uncompromising emotional edge, the intricate lyrical wordplay and inspired rhymes… everything that made the “Hamilton” soundtrack a world-conquering smash is here in abundance. Coupled with dazzling cinematography, colorful production design, and phenomenal choreography, the musical numbers are more than worth the cost of admission.
That said, there were quite a few times when the editing was a little too quick for its own good. I didn’t appreciate all the split-second shots in addition to so much else going on. Also, I have no idea if the “96,000” number originally took place at a water park, but the placement here in the film simply doesn’t work. The setting and the song don’t match at all, especially at the point where everyone gets out their thin, disposable, PAPER lottery tickets in the middle of a freaking pool. WTF?
Conversely, we have “Sunrise”, sung to a dance number that could only be possible in the medium of film. It’s easily the most inventive, energetic, visually stunning, breathlessly romantic number I’ve seen in a film since La La Land. And it’s sharing a film with “Champagne”, a whiplash number that’s dynamic and heartbreaking and totally ruthless precisely because of its stripped-down no-frills delivery. Incredible.
But what’s the film about? Well, let’s meet our cast of characters in Washington Heights.
- Usnavi (Ramos) is a young man running the corner bodega he inherited from his parents. His dream is to move back to his ancestral homeland in the Dominican Republic, so he can purchase and fix up his father’s old bar (since destroyed in some hurricane).
- Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) is a childhood friend and surrogate little sister to the orphaned Usnavi. She’s the overachieving student who got out of Washington Heights and went to college at Stanford. Trouble is, her father (Kevin, played by Jimmy Smits) is having trouble paying the exorbitant Stanford tuition fees, and Nina has serious doubts that Stanford is the right place for her at any rate.
- Benny (Corey Hawkins) works for Kevin as a cab dispatcher. He’s also Nina’s love interest and a friend to Usnavi.
- Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is Usnavi’s love interest. She works as a stylist at the local salon, but she has dreams of getting her own space downtown and working her way into the fashion industry.
- Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is the kindly old woman who’s pretty much adopted everyone on the block as her surrogate family. In particular, she basically raised Usnavi.
- Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) is Usnavi’s teenage cousin, and also an employee who helps at the bodega. Though his father (played by an unrecognizable Marc Anthony) is still technically in the picture, Sonny doesn’t really have a positive role model aside from Usnavi, and the undocumented teenage immigrant is still young enough that the future secretly terrifies him.
- Daniela, Carla, and Cuca (respectively played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, and Dascha Polanco) are perhaps better known as “the Salon Ladies”. Daniela runs the salon where they and Vanessa all work. The three of them are incessant gossips, and one is rarely seen without the other two. In a few short days, they’ll be moving their business to the Bronx.
With so many different characters and plotlines running around, it should come as little surprise that the film is two and a half hours long. And even with so much screen time to work with, most of the characters still come off as thin and cliched, with saccharine and predictable character arcs.
Yet the film still works. And it works beautifully.
Part of that is the pacing. One benefit of an overstuffed film is that there’s always something going on. The film demands your attention through every second from start to finish, because you’re guaranteed to miss something no matter when or how quickly you step out for a bathroom break.
More importantly, while each character isn’t really all that interesting individually, they’re rarely ever seen in a vacuum. This is very much an ensemble-driven movie, and the characters are deeply compelling in their interactions with each other. Yes, a lot of that has to do with the fact that their more emotional exchanges are done to magnificent musical numbers. But even when there’s no music at all, the silence between characters speaks volumes.
The filmmakers never let us forget that these characters all grew up together. They all know each other inside and out. Therefore, when the characters help each other out, talk through their problems, or even — especially! — when they fight, the situation is so much more escalated. It also helps that the actors are all so rock-solid, all playing their roles with such unrestricted gusto, it serves to remind us about all those decades of shared history and make the characters seem deeper than they really are.
But easily the single most important factor about this movie is in all the allegories and metaphors at play. It isn’t all flashy songs and bright colors, this is quite certainly a movie with something to say.
The characters tell us early and often that this is a story about dreams. It’s a story about goals and ambitions and the sacrifices to make them possible. But that takes on a whole new dimension in a story about immigrants in their adoptive country. Most especially this country.
(Side note: In one particular scene, everyone in Washington Heights lifts up a torch in memory of a deceased neighbor. It’s meant as a show of grief, but the image is eerily similar to the Statue of Liberty, possibly the most iconic symbol of immigration in the USA. I could spend a whole separate blog entry trying to unpack the symbolism in that one shot — damn shame the filmmakers didn’t make more and better use of it.)
For so many of these characters, their ambitions and dreams will take them out of Washington Heights. They’ll have to leave the home and the people that they love to try and carve out a niche in some unfamiliar place that isn’t as kind to strangers. For immigrants, this is certainly not a new dilemma. But the dilemma takes on a whole new dimension when the “homeland” is a barrio in NYC, itself a place carved out by immigrants and their families as recently as the 1960s. The characters’ parents sacrificed so much to make the Heights into a loving and supportive home for them, so will those sacrifices be in vain if they have to move out? Or if gentrification eventually forces them out?
This is a movie very intently focused on the present. A central tenet of the film is that the present never lasts and tomorrow always comes. On the one hand, that means keeping an eye toward the future and putting together some kind of attainable life goals while we still have time to plan. On the other hand, that also means appreciating what we have, where we are, and who’s around us before time inevitably erodes all that. Yet it also means paying some means of tribute to the past, for that’s where our sturdiest roots come from. And in the final analysis, it’s the past that ultimately made our present and future possible.
In the Heights has heart. It’s got heart bursting out of every frame. Every character, every line, every cut, every song of every musical number was delivered with an abundance of passion. That’s what makes the film heartfelt, that’s what makes the themes credible, and perhaps most importantly, that’s what makes the whole damn movie so much fun. Even when the plot thins, it’s the overwhelming and infectious passion of the cast and crew that makes this such an excellent movie.
On account of the extensive runtime, I’d say that HBO Max would be the way to watch this one. But if that’s not an option for whatever reason, then by all means, get to your local multiplex. This is absolutely not a film to be missed.