Movie Review: “In the Heights”

One of the awful trends we’re getting these days in the media are the lazy “most ‘x’ since the pandemic” or “we finally have a reason to return to ‘y’ after the pandemic” articles. You’ve likely heard a lot of these of late, whether it’s with gas prices or the number of people the TSA has screened in a single day or movie box office numbers. I don’t know how many reviews of movies have suggested that whatever new film is the reason to go back to theaters, but I do know that I’ve seen it more than once and have disagreed every time (not because the movie named is bad, but because we shouldn’t demand people return to such things if they’re not ready).

With that in mind, please forgive me when I start my review of “In the Heights” by saying that I am so very happy to have seen the movie on the big screen.

Directed by John M. Chu and with a screenplay from Quiara Alegría Hudes (based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical stage play and lyrics), “In the Heights” is a kind of fairy tale love letter to a New York City neighborhood. It is the beating heart of place put on screen for everyone to see. It is sad and sweet and romantic and funny. It is (please read the first paragraph of this review again) why we go to the movies.

No one could ever accuse this musical of not having enough story to go around. There are, in fact, no fewer than three different romantic storylines playing out.

First, there’s the tale of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Usnavi, who is also the film’s narrator, is the owner of a bodega which he runs with the help of his nephew, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). His would-be girlfriend, Vanessa, works at the local beauty salon but dreams of moving downtown and becoming a fashion designer. He can’t express his feelings to her and no small amount of men in Washington Heights have a thing for her, and she doesn’t seem to understand how deep Usnavi’s feelings go.

Then, there’s the tale of Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). Nina is the daughter of Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who owns the car service where Benny works. She’s the first in the family to have gone to college (Stanford!) and the neighborhood as a whole has put a lot of weight on her shoulders to succeed, and she feels that weight every day. Returning for the summer break, she isn’t sure she wants to go back to Palo Alto.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s the story of the love for a neighborhood. It is the story of the people in this section of New York who have carved out lives for themselves, sometimes over many generations, and found a home. It’s a story of some of these folks being pushed out of that same neighborhood as rents rise and wants change.

While the human love stories are wonderful, it is this last one that ties the whole thing together and (forgive me, I know this is a musical) makes the whole thing sing. Yes, there are love songs between the various couples, but even those feature Washington Heights as a backdrop and that provides something extra to them. When Chu and company have the entire neighborhood participating in any of the songs or dances, there is an electricity to the movie. And, as I write that, I think of one particularly great number with Nina and Benny, “When the Sun Goes Down,” which is just the two of them, not full of background dancers, and is pure magic.

The music (the songs are produced by Miranda, Bill Sherman, and Alex Lacamoire, all three of whom are also credited on the film’s score) is instantly familiar and exciting and forces the audience into the movie itself. It is more than propulsive and Chu’s direction manages to enhance the entire affair rather than take anything away from it. Whether it’s a quieter song or something louder, Chu handles each in perfect fashion, not dismissing any as minor works less worthy of filmic attention. There are numbers big and small and watching it you will never want any of them to end.

In fact, the attempt to choose a single favorite feels impossible because as soon as I write “When the Sun Goes Down,” I think about “96,000” or “No Me Diga” or “Carnaval Del Barrio” or “Benny’s Dispatch” or the titular “In the Heights.” And I have to stop the list now, because I could simply throw down the entire soundtrack.

But, it doesn’t end there. It isn’t just that Chu’s direction is brilliant and the perfect enhancement to the music. It isn’t just the mix of the love stories. The cast is incredible as well, whether they are in parts big or small. Ramos, Barrera, Grace, and Hawkins would be enough, but adding in Smits; Olga Merediz; Daphne Rubin-Vega; Marc Anthony; Stephanie Beatriz; Dascha Polanco; and, yes, Miranda himself just make it that much better (which is not to denigrate anyone I haven’t named).

If this review is too effusive in its praise, forgive me. “In the Heights” is a thrilling experience I didn’t want to end. I wished they could have started it from the beginning as soon as the credits finished and I wish that I had gotten the chance to see the stage musical on Broadway (though I can’t imagine it having been better there). This is a movie about individual lives as well as the life of a neighborhood and by the time it ends you legitimately feel as though you know those people, as though you’ve been welcomed into their home and their world and you feel special for it, as though you’ve been taken under their wing and given some sort of privileged insight.

If there’s a better “welcome back” for movie theaters, I can’t imagine it. It is a joy.

photo credit: Warner Bros.

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