Movie Review: In the Heights

In the Heights is a musical set in the heavily Latinx, Manhattan neighborhood, Washington Heights. The story centers around Usnavi, who dreams of reopening his father's bar down in the Dominican Republic. He's joined by Vanessa who wants her fashions to be the talk of the town. As well as Nina who is facing challenges at Stanford after the weight of the neighborhood is on her shoulders for being one of the only ones to "get out." As well as Benny who wants to run his own business and is ready to move up at the cab company where he works. The action is centered around scorching summer days and major changes in the neighborhood. The film stars Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Olivia Perez, Patrick Page, Mateo Gómez, Noah Catala, Marc Anthony, Jimmy Smits, Curtis Jackson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The film is directed by John M. Chu and the screenplay is by Quiara Alegría Hudes with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The film is streaming with an HBO Max subscription for the next 29 days and also playing at movie theaters.

I am head over heels in love with this film. There's something deep in me that craves stories about people with dreams who struggle and scrape and keep on going. In the Heights scratches that itch with such terrific music, life and dance. The film is a vibrant display of wizardry and heart.

It's no surprise either as John M. Chu has been delivering films like this for his entire career. He's got an eye for the human body in motion that few other directors can match and an eye for the grand scale and color of life. Chu and cinematographer Alice Brooks give us every view imaginable, carefully, skillfully twisting and turning us amongst the choreographed, sweaty, sexy, vibrant bodies. Chu brings the grand epic scale back to studio musicals.

The most important person on those musicals is also In the Heights' secret weapon. Choreographer Christopher Scott brings the balance of traditional Latin dance with hip hop, modern styles and classic moves. It's an incredible thing to watch people move in ways I can only dream of (I've always said I'm a dancer trapped inside a clumsy body). Nothing is more impressive than the terrific scale of the number at the pool. There are three interconnected sequences of the song with three distinct dances going at once. It's marvelous to watch as the camera gets higher and higher for a synchronized swim and then switches to a few dozen people splashing, jumping and moving water in unison.

Chu brings magic to this musical. While the limitations of the stage may have made for some excellent sequences, the film medium allows for something astonishing. The scene I'm thinking of, of course, is as Benny and Nina share their dance. The two of them suddenly climb onto the wall of a building and our perspective shifts as we watch them dance. The movement is so seamless it makes you forget there is CGI and a lot of technical work behind it. It lets you get lost even more in the story and marvel at what can be achieved even just between two human bodies.

The greatest special effect of all, though are the powerful voices of the singers and none is more affecting than Olga Merediz playing Abuela Claudia. When she finally gets her solo, it's a dream sequence full of more terrific choreography and dancers, but you would be hard pressed to take your eyes off of Merediz as she gives us the beautiful song, "Paciencia y Fé." The whole thing being cut beautifully, by editor Myron Kerstein, between Abuela's dream and her lying down seeing her found family as they come together during the blackout. It's a terrific sequence and performance.

As much as I love Abuela, our Usnavi, Anthony Ramos, is simply the brightest star in the galaxy of In the Heights. He's a charm bomb that explodes on screen with his million watt smile, his gargantuan pipes and his electric rhymes. Ramos carries this film into the stratosphere and beyond. He'll break your heart and make you laugh. Anthony Ramos is just superb and I hope this is his big break and we see him everywhere and in everything from now on.

For musical theater nerds, the sub-sub plot of the piragua man vs. the Mr. Softee man is a real treat as those two are played by Broadway Benny and Usnavi Lin-Manuel Miranda and Curtis Jackson. For movie musical nerds, In the Heights is a treat all around. For movie lovers, this film is an absolute treasure. There is so much incredible vibrancy and urgency to it and its story. After I break into watching movies at a theater again, I'm going to go and pay to see this one on the biggest screen I can find because it deserves all of my attention. See this one as soon and as much as you can.

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