James Jay Edwards

In the Heights Sings Its Way Through Stories of Hope

(In the Heights, courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

James Jay Edwards reviews In the Heights, a musical drama film based on the stage musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. (Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Actor/singer/composer/playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household name in 2015 with his hip-hop history lesson Hamilton. But a decade earlier, he did the hit musical In the Heights. And now, with the help of Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu, In the Heights is a major motion picture event.

In the Heights is about a community of people in a New York neighborhood called Washington Heights who sing and dance their way through life. There’s Usnavi (Anthony Ramos from A Star is Born), a bodega owner who dreams of a life running his father’s old resort in the Dominican Republic. And there’s Vanessa (Vida’s Melissa Barrera), a salon worker who wants nothing more than to move out of The Heights and work as a fashion designer. There’s also Nina (Latin pop star Leslie Grace), who escaped The Heights to go to college at Stanford and returns for the summer with some distressing news for the father (Jimmy Smits from NYPD Blue) who mortgaged his future to pay for her education.

 

(In the Heights, theatrical release poster, courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the Heights is packed with colorful characters, each of whom has their own story and dreams. Even the background characters seem fully fleshed out, like Vanessa’s fellow salon ladies or the guy who sells shaved ice (who, known only as Piragua Guy and played by Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, has a show-stopping song). Everyone in The Heights has a story to tell.

Of course, those stories are told in song, and just as anyone who is familiar with Miranda’s work with Hamilton can guess, the songs are incredible. The music is essentially Latin-influenced hip-hop, with plenty of infectious melodies, but also a street beat, and it’s all backed by the rhythm of New York City itself. And not only are the songs great, but the performances are stellar as well. Each performer brings their unique style to each tune, but there’s also a group chemistry that sort of outshines the individuals. In the Heights is strongest when the entire ensemble is in the mix.

 

(In the Heights, courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

Jon M. Chu finds a way to creatively present the visual aspects of the movie in a way that adds to the musical energy. At one point, Usnavi looks out the window of his bodega at a group of people dancing in the streets, and the viewer sees the reflection of the dancers on the glass in front of him, showing him so close but so far from the carefree lifestyle for which he longs. In another scene, Nina has a duet with her former boyfriend, Benny (Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins), on a fire escape, and as the couple sings, they start to dance on the side of the building, Chu’s slick camera tricks allowing them to dreamily defy gravity while getting lost in each other, if only for a few moments.

If there’s a knock against In the Heights, it’s the fact that there isn’t enough music. The third act seems to forget how the movie got there and moves away from the high-energy musical numbers in favor of a more dramatic angle. Which is fine, but not fun. All of the toe-tappin’ and finger-snappin’ of the beginning just kind of stops as the characters figure out their respective life decisions. Again, it’s fine. But that’s where some of the fun ends. Or, at least, it ends until the resolution song-and-dance number brings everyone back up.

 

(In the Heights, courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

In the Heights knows its audience, and it plays to that audience. But it also plays to a demographic that includes anyone who has a pulse. It’s difficult to not smile through most of it. That’s if you don’t already know the songs and aren’t too busy singing along.

In the Heights is in select theaters and on HBO Max now.

 

 

Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.

 

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