When it comes to my personal taste in musicals, I can sum it up in a phrase: “Go big or go home.”
Movie musicals play with huge emotions, a sweeping grandeur of elegant conflict that can only be expressed through music, song, and dance; full of bodies moving in unison, and what begins as a wistful thought avalanches into an unstoppable force of passion that fills everyone in its vicinity with power, romance, and wonder.
Roger Ebert called movies “machines that generate empathy.” If musicals are empathy machines, they are engines, putting audiences into the highest gears of emotional power.
Audiences who insist on realism in their movies often find little in a musical, which is probably why the genre has struggled since the late 1960s. Audiences changed over the years, their tastes going from escapism to realism and back. Musicals changed with them, with many stripping down those huge dance numbers for something more intimate, more “realistic.”
Many film adaptations of famous stage plays became reenactments, and the more cinematic musicals remained mostly in animation. We would occasionally see musicals that were wider in scope, like Moulin Rouge! or Mary Poppins Returns, but mostly, musicals just reproduced the stage show, to varying degrees of success.
No offense to Broadway, but I love to see a movie musical live up to its potential, when the camera soars with its characters, moments of pure cinema that stage plays simply cannot reach. These films are fantasies, and cinema turns those fantasies into a tangible reality.
Too often, modern movie musicals shy away from that earnestness, contracting their scope when they should be exploding it. The modern movie musical should not be afraid to look ridiculous, because in that tiny space between steady and silly, magic can happen.
So when it was announced that Jon M. Chu was going to be directing the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning In the Heights, I felt confident that the project was in good hands. Chu has a vision that is so much larger than simply putting the camera down and pointing.
The emotions of a great musical cross a wide landscape, and Chu wants to document all of it, from the emotional acreage of the face of a character yearning for something more, to an entire city block singing and dancing together, swept up in the majesty of the moment. This kind of emotion cannot be restrained; it should be recognized, validated, appreciated, and joyously celebrated.
Taken individually, the wants, needs, and ambitions of the characters of In the Heights are a few threads among many but taken together each thread is woven with the others to create a bright, beautiful tapestry. The power of each of these characters’ stories is undeniable. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) wants to return to his home in the Dominican Republic to reopen his family’s bar after inheriting it from his grandfather, his head full of nostalgia for easier times, and barely keeping it above water running his neighborhood bodega.
He also spends a lot of his time looking out for Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his younger cousin who has ambitions of his own outside Washington Heights. Even though Usnavi is ready to leave the neighborhood, he cannot help pining for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works at the local salon but dreams of becoming a fashion designer, breaking out into Manhattan, and having her own place uptown.
Meanwhile, Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants to make his mark and start a business. He is not afraid of doing the work, either; Benny takes pride in his job at Kevin Rosario’s (Jimmy Smits) cab company. He is also fallen hard for Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who has come home from Stanford University, overwhelmed by the burden of carrying her family’s hopes and dreams, having dropped out of school.
Over everything, local matriarch to the neighborhood, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) watches over everyone else, supporting them at their best and picking them up when they are at their worst. When Usnavi discovers that his store sold a winning lottery ticket to someone in the neighborhood, everyone speculates on who may have won, and dreams of a world outside the Heights.
Many words have been written already about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s resounding success in merging new styles in traditional musical garb — Grandmaster Flash meets Rodgers and Hammerstein — but while we have been treated to his wonderful works with Hamilton and his work with Disney, In the Heights brought him to the stage. Jon M. Chu has taken the multiple Tony-award-winning play, moved certain plot points around, dropped some sequences, blown up others, and the result is a movie musical that flows with the emotions on display.
Sometimes the music is intimate, and sometimes the music becomes a Busby Berkeley showstopper. One of the very best songs is “96,000,” as all of Washington Heights meets around the local swimming pool and wonders how much their lives would change if they won that kind of money. Everyone’s sueñito — the little dream — to break out becomes the focus of their lives. Throughout the film, Jon M. Chu keeps the stakes high and the desires of each character are given the appropriate scope and attention.
The performances are terrific, especially Anthony Ramos, Jimmy Smits, and Leslie Grace. This is not a movie with “villains” so much as it is full of struggles for these characters to overcome a world that has already discounted them. However, probably the best performance in the film is with Olga Merediz as Claudia, who has taken the neighborhood under her own wing, and their struggles become hers.
The song “Paciencia Y Fe” is Merediz singing about her escaping her past and her hopes for the future, and Merediz owns that moment heart and soul. There was not a dry eye during that musical number, and Jon M. Chu finds so much beauty in all of it. This is a transformative moment for this director; we should have seen it coming with the Step Up movies Chu’s directed, but In the Heights is the movie he was destined to make, and going forward, I hope to see Chu create more musicals for the ages. I await his Wicked with great anticipation.
In the Heights is a film about community, about the promises of America versus the reality of those promises given to anyone who comes into this country with hopes and dreams only to see them diminish as those promises are broken. The people of Washington Heights work hard, want what is best for their children, and are willing to do what it takes as long as the promises of America are kept. Their joys are genuine, their sorrows heartfelt, their struggles real.
So much great cinema is created by showing the people who need to see it a world outside their experience and so many others go to the movies to see a world they recognize, people they understand – themselves. We all deserve to see ourselves in the movies.
After a year of the struggles we have all had, a film like In the Heights assures us that we are all still American no matter where we come from, and we can all love each other, keep our promises, celebrate our differences, and carry each other’s weight because this is what good people, regardless of nationality, should do. In the Heights celebrates the best of us.
In the Heights is beautiful and wonderful. See it on the biggest, brightest, loudest screen you can. And make sure to stay after the credits.
IN THE HEIGHTS REVIEW SCORE: 9.5/10
In the Heights will open in theaters and on HBO Max on June 10, 2021. The film will be available on HBO Max for 31 days from theatrical release.
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years, for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He is a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.