In The Heights
Warner Brothers Pictures
Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes and Lin Manuel Miranda
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Starring Anthony Ramos, Jimmy Smits, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco and Lin Manuel Miranda
A film version of the Broadway musical in which Usnavi, a sympathetic New York bodega owner, saves every penny every day as he imagines and sings about a better life.
Dreams and aspirations are probably the two biggest terms one can use to describe the stories within the musical In The Heights. Usnavi (Ramos) dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s business and recapture what he considers “the best days of my life”. Kevin (Smits) dreams of giving his daughter the life and opportunities that he wished he had. Vanessa (Barrera) dreams of moving out the Heights and becoming a fashion designer. Benny (Hawkins) dreams of being successful and wooing Kevin’s daughter Nina while Nina (Grace) dreams that she wasn’t an object for others to project their dreams onto.
There are a lot of stories going on in the film, but all of them are connected by the character relationships and the unifying presence of Abuela Claudia (Merediz) who is the abuela to everyone in the neighborhood. She is the person people come to for family and community in a place that is changing due to gentrification. Rent has gone up, businesses are being bought and sold and the people who call the area home are finding that they cannot stay. The neighborhood and community aspects of the story are told through the amazing musical numbers that showcase how close these people are and how connected they are to the community.
The story is told by Usnavi, who is trying to convey to a group of children the importance of the community, its people and its story. Amidst the changes coming, the strength of its people becomes a testament to that community in many ways. Like any musical, there are love stories abound. After Nina drops out of Stanford, she comes home and invariably reignites her relationship with Benny who works for Nina’s father. Usnavi is preparing to leave the Heights forever, but is still drawn to Vanessa who just wants to get out and get away. All of the love stories are organic and nothing feels forced because the through line through all of them is how they are informed by the changes in the characters.
The music is fantastic and Jon M. Chu does an amazing job of highlighting the city in the musical numbers. While those touches are perfect for a film about a place, they can sometimes take away some of the intimacy of the songs in the case of Nina’s solo song “Breathe” where she laments her decision and wishes for things to be different. In this case, the city almost becomes a distraction. At other times, the city perfectly fits like in the case of Vanessa’s solo “It Won’t Be Long Now”. That song perfectly encapsulates moving on and the city becomes another character brilliantly captured by Chu.
The bigger musical numbers like “96,000” and “Carnaval Del Barrio” beautifully showcase the community and its connection while “Paciencia Y Fe” from Abuela Claudia is heartbreaking in its intimacy and power. Even Miranda’s rendition of “Piragua” has a wonderful mixture of humor and heart. Chu captures a brilliant energy in every musical number and you can’t help but want to be in those moments with those characters.
In The Heights is everything a movie musical should be. It has great characters. A sense of both place and wonder and heart infused in every note. Chu directs a vibrant, energetic film that captures the imagination and has you clamoring to listen to the music and relive those moments.