6/10/2021 IN THE HEIGHTS HBO Max / Area Theatres
It is a hot summer morning and the (mostly LatinX) residents of Washington Heights are gradually coming to life. Over the course of a few short weeks, they experience life-changing choices, life-affirming luck, life-challenging tragedy. And they come together as a community. And each and every one of them has a dream, big or small, unattainable or within reach.
Meet Usnavi, a young man trying to make ends meet at a small bodega, his "Abuela Claudia" who raised him after his parents died, his cousin Sonny. Meet Nina, the young woman "who got out" to attend Stanford but now returns in defeat, her proud and domineering father Kevin, her ex-boyfriend Benny (a non-Hispanic employee of her Father). Meet Vanessa, who has Usnavi's eye. Meet Daniela and Carla whose salon has been sold and who are "moving downtown." And don't forget the Piragua Guy and the Graffiti Guy, two neighborhood denizens who slide into and out of the story at just the right moments.
Most important, meet In the Heights, the long-awaited movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ground-breaking debut, first produced in Connecticut in 2005, reaching Off-Broadway in 2007 and finally landing on Broadway in 2008 (not to mention hitting Atlanta in a breathtakingly dazzling 2016 co-production from the Aurora Theatre and Theatrical Outfit).
Fans of the musical will surely note the changes that happen – the dropping of characters (Nina’s mother, for example), a new Miranda song over the closing titles, new references to DACA, the adding of a framing story featuring Usnavi comfortably ensconced in his beachside Dominican Republic dream restaurant telling his story to an eager gaggle of children. So, we know from the start it will end differently than the stage version.
Fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda will surely note the participation of Hamilton cast members in key roles (Anthony Ramos as Usnavi) and “background” roles (Christopher Jackson as Mr. Softee). Others will note also the participation of Rent star Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela, Latinx Superstar Marc Anthony as Sonny’s father, television icon Jimmy Smits as Kevin, original cast member (and Tony nominee) Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, and Miranda himself as the Piragua guy. And everyone will (or at least should) note the incredible talent displayed by newcomers Melissa Barrera as Vanessa and Leslie Grace as Nina
Let me be a little honest with you here. When I first heard the score to In the Heights, I was not overwhelmed. I'm not the biggest fan of hip-hop, and really needed a lyric sheet to follow the words. But then, at some point, I saw a PBS documentary on the show's gestation and growth. Seeing these songs in context gave them new life for me (especially Nina's breathtaking "Breathe"), and the more I listened, the more I heard. And truth to tell, without this show as reference, I never would have understood the universal appeal of Hamilton. But Mr. Miranda's work is now thoroughly (and perhaps eternally) "under my skin."
And truth to tell, In The Heights has so many characters, so many stories crammed into such a small space (one cul-de-sac, one summer, one show, one movie), that picking any out is problematic for a writer of my limited ambition.
So, final truth to tell, I loved this movie from beginning to end. Its high spirits, high energy, and high creativity from director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Pulitzer-prize winning screenplay writer Quiara Alegría Hudes (Water by the Spoonful), and the ridiculously stratospheric talent of its cast – all made its running time fly by faster than a Carnivale celebration. Since this review is based on watching the HBO Max small-screen version, I honestly am chomping at the bit to see it on a big screen (it will be my first movie in well over 18 months), at which time I may have more comments to add to this piece.
Watching In the Heights is an experience like no other, a celebration of community, of friendship, of heritage. And, more obviously (and much more clearly than in the original musical) a celebration of the power of a dream, whether that dream is of a return to one’s roots, an escape from one’s situation, a new job in a new neighborhood, a creative outlet, success for your children, or the kind of gravity-defying love that breaks the rules of expectations and physics.
This movie is itself a dream, a dream that fans of musical theatre always have -- seeing a favorite translated successfully to the big screen!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #InTheHeights)
(Please note that there’s an “Easter Egg” scene (and song) AFTER the end titles.)