In 2018, director Jon M. Chu imbued the standard rom-com plot of his Crazy Rich Asians adaptation with classical Hollywood decadence, hanging it all on a framework of well-constructed cultural specificity. It was big, spectacular and embarrassingly novel for an American movie of its kind. Now, in 2021, we’re getting Chu’s version of In the Heights, the musical that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map (and won him his first Tony). It’s incredible. The exciting electricity of a non-white blockbuster cast becoming superstars before your eyes, the maximalist style of a modern smash updating its influences, the intertwining of hyper-specific and broad themes—Chu’s strengths and his cast soar, bringing In the Heights as high as it’s ever been. It’s the best Hollywood musical in years.
Tracking a few sweltering days in New York’s Washington Heights, the film meshes Do the Right Thing’s hot summer tension with School Daze’s teasing affection for its song-slinging genre. It just so happens that the corner we’re on is the collision point for the intersecting lives and romances of two couples—bodega boss Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and aspiring designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) and recent Stanford dropout Nina (Leslie Grace)—who serve as the neighborhood’s most vocal examples of those that life’s rigged lottery left putting their patience and faith in a daily scratcher. There’s no real pivotal struggle (especially not between Sharks and Jets, though wouldn’t it be incredible if Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story gave 2021 two great NYC musicals?) aside from the ever-present and myriad anxieties of Nth generation Americans living in a racist country.
Yes, those familiar with the themes of Miranda’s Hamilton will find a similar rhythm and thematic flavor here—though with the showtunes’ style slipping into a salsa or bolero as easily as the rap bars dip in and out of Spanish—but with a purity of form and meaning that’s lyrical critiques and observations are even sharper than those mired in the phenomenon’s historical metaphor. But as much as Miranda’s sensibility is ever-present throughout the film, it’s a blessing that Ramos takes over as the lead, using the full breadth of his impressive AAA charm to assure every last unconvinced soul that he is one of our great stars. Singing, rapping, dancing, pining over Vanessa, pining over the Dominican Republic, bumbling, speaking in direct address (always a test of charisma), exuding a casual sexiness—Ramos is the platonic ideal of a romantic leading man and exactly who we need guiding us through the musical’s everyday complexity.
And those around him are no slouches either. Hawkins, Grace and Barrera might not get the jack-of-all-trades showcase offered to Ramos, but they all make their cases for golden-voiced superstardom as their characters attempt to pursue their dreams. Grace gets the added benefit of playing off an understated, devastating Jimmy Smits in their father-daughter subplot, while Ramos is constantly battling the scene-stealing Gregory Diaz IV, who plays Usnavi’s little cousin Sonny. But nobody, not even Ramos, can hold a candle to Olga Merediz, the sole original Broadway performer to reprise her role. She was Tony-nominated for her stage performance as the barrio’s honorary abuela, Claudia, and I’d be happy if she was Oscar-nominated for bringing it to film. Her song, “Paciencia y Fe,” is a show stopper, the most moving and emotionally intelligent of the film, that’s staged in the most inventive way. It overcomes every potential pitfall to become an instantly classic musical scene, a daring showcase that owes every ounce of its power to Merediz’s pathos.
In fact, almost all the songs are bangers that keep emotions high—you’ll weep, you’ll cheer, you’ll hum the songs to yourself on the way out of the theater—bolstered by orchestration that, while restrained when limited to its lovers, explodes when the choruses finally incorporate the neighborhood at large. Head-bobbing bops and moving melodies match rhythmic editing and a vibrant, fittingly populous background that’s constant choreography sustains the perpetual, organic flow of a community. Filling the out-of-focus corners of the world with movement keeps the illusion alive, making the musical tick like the insides of a joyous clock. Chu’s best at mapping cinematic scope to these songs, finding the right distance and busyness of shot to compliment the tone. While he and cinematographer Alice Brooks create some inspired compositions (never held quite as long as you’d like) and often subtly incorporate reflections, In the Heights looks as good as it does because of its lush colors and calculated staging.
In the Heights successfully navigates the city’s different aesthetics—a blisteringly sexy salsa club, a dehumanizing subway, a cozy bodega—while making it all feel of a piece. This block looks like an explosion of color with scale enough to recreate the imagination that a well-orchestrated stage show inspires. Belief can be suspended and trust in a heightened world can be encouraged, but Chu’s sorcery is that his images and setpieces often match the wonders of our own minds—he fulfills the what-ifs with sometimes literally flying colors, flung down from rooftops and draped down storefronts. “When the Sun Goes Down” is staged like Inception, if someone had ever told Christopher Nolan about sex. And the pool-set “96,000”—well, to quote its singers…damn. An outrageous, exceptional setpiece (replete with synchronized swimming) as overwhelming as a waterslide and as raucous as a cannonball.
When things aren’t in full-bore spectacle mode—not ogling the literal fireworks that light up an inspired sequence—and we get a chance to breathe, the movie’s story settles into focus. Quiara Alegría Hudes adapts her own work, making the most of the quarter-life crisis narrative’s tweaks. Even if her addition of a frame story can be a little clunky, it pays off as it shows its respect for the next generation and asks for the same respect as it passes on the stories of those that came before. Hudes restructures things a little, trimming here and there while adding a few more cinematic elements—and deciding to put some of the story’s most critical moments center stage instead of off-screen. Her changes don’t totally scrub the script of shorthand or schmaltz, but everything clicks together well with any hints of dishonesty coming from an ever-present optimism that’s so fitting with the genre and aesthetic that it’s hard to take offense.
And who couldn’t use a little optimism in their massive movie musical? In fact, what else could be more necessary, more life-giving, to a culture that nearly lost its will and ability to go to the movies? A large-scale multicultural carnival; a sometimes subtitled, always legible testament to cities and their people; a celebration of each other—of evolving social expression, romantic and platonic love, the promises of the American Dream to the collective as well as the individual—that exemplifies, at every level, what gets butts in seats. In the Heights is a stunning, triumphant return to the cinema that reminds us again and again and again why we love seeing movies on the big screen, together. I’m not saying that In the Heights is the savior of an art form, or even one of the greatest champions of that art form’s communal method of being experienced. What I am saying is that In the Heights is great, and its greatness is amplified by the joy that it will inspire in theaters full of people for years to come.
Director: Jon M. Chu
Writers: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits
Release Date: June 11, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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