Yo, with 96, 000, I’d finally fix housing
Give the barrio computers and wireless web browsing
Your kids are living without a good edumacation change the station,
Teach them about gentrification, the rent is escalating (what?)
The rich are penetrating (what?)
We pay our corporations
When we should be demonstrating (what?)
What about immigration? (what?)
Politicians be hating (what?)
Racism in this nation’s gone
From latent to blatant!
IN THE HEIGHTS is a musical and a film that never forgets to be either one of those things and does both of those things very well. It is filled with both magic and earnest emotion. It’s not afraid to be sentimental or loving about even the small everyday things in life. In a time of cynicism, irony, and mistrust in your fellow humans, there’s not really a better cinematic balm for a stressed out soul. It makes us realize that those small everyday things are actually the building blocks of your life. It reminds us that kindness and family, especially chosen family, still matter. It reminds us that, despite adversity, our hopes and dreams are not dead. Persistence matters. Luck will eventually come through if you don’t give up. Scratch a cynic deep enough and you’ll find a disappointed romantic. But it also succinctly makes the point that to achieve your dream, it helps to know what you really want first.
IN THE HEIGHTS is the first musical that Lin Manuel Miranda wrote as a student in college and while he is now known more for the outrageous success of HAMILTON, HEIGHTS was very successful as well. The same team that took this musical to Broadway, Manuel (music and lyrics) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (book) have revised the musical for our current times; for example a lyric that mentioned Donald Trump was changed to Tiger Woods. The film version has been in development since 2008.
IN THE HEIGHTS is the story of Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), the young owner of a bodega who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic and buying his father’s business and going to the place he thinks is his home. The stories of the neighborhood play out while he does his business each day with his cousin Sonny and a countdown to a citywide blackout. Usnavi has an unrequited crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who dreams of moving uptown and comes by the bodega for coffee. His friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) loves his boss’ daughter Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), who has just returned from Stanford as the toast of the neighborhood, but no one knows that she has dropped out because she feels unwelcome there. Their paths all converge on the night of the blackout with the discovery that his bodega sold a winning lottery ticket and a tragedy.
The focus of the story was changed from the Broadway version and I think it was an overall improvement. Because times have changed and the topic of immigration has become more contentious, the changes have made the story more topical and given it a feeling of reality. The lyrics from 9600 that I quoted at the beginning of this review are the seeds of this change. The DREAMERS and DACA are part of our reality and the film version reflects that reality and the current state of xenophobia in the United States. It’s like a sculptor chipping away the stone to reveal the statue beneath it. With writing, you often realize other and powerful things that can be said that your own words may have previously only hinted at. You find and refine your work through the process. I think that is what has happened with Quiara Alegría Hudes’ screenplay. The additions are welcome and they deepen the drama and expand the emotional stakes.
Jon M. Chu (CRAZY RICH ASIANS, STEP UP 3-D) has directed the film with a strong dose of magical realism. One of the biggest complaints that I hear from people who don’t like musicals is that it makes no sense that people just start singing and dancing in the middle of life. The film very cleverly makes that issue a meta joke throughout the running time especially in one sequence that is fully in the fantasy realm. The reactions of normies to a character jumping on their bus and singing and dancing is exactly the reaction I expect on the faces of those people complaining. It fashions a bridge for those people to cross over into belief that yes, sometimes people just start singing and dancing because they feel like it. It’s true, I’ve done it. Chu has fused together the standards of the musical while making them believable and engaging to a present day audience. His work with the STEP UP films has obviously served him well. Not only if the film current in a way that musicals are not, it pays tribute to some of the most fabulous choreographed sequences of the past, there’s a nod to the dancing on the ceiling scene in ROYAL WEDDING:
The pool scene is a tribute to the Busby Berkley style water ballet:
And these tributes aren’t just there to show off, the Royal Wedding style scene is a scene of romantic devotion like the original. The pool sequence is part of a song that physically unites the neighborhood in a shared dream and longing that they have as one, so the scene makes sense. It also underlines the feeling of this particular neighborhood as a family that is emotionally connected. It connects the spontaneous dances and singing, the elements of magical realism, to those dreams thus grounding it in human emotion. His strongest work as a director is using emotion to tell the story and give it the dramatic weight that it needs. When Usnavi reaches his arms to the sky in what is a universally trite gesture in most musicals, it is not here because the emotional work of the actors from their own emotional well and Chu’s direction makes it real and believable. The film and the actors and film makers earn that emotion which makes all the difference.
The cinematography is by Alice Brooks (JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, THE LXD: LEGION OF EXTRAORDINARY DANCERS) and she has lit the film with a very warm light with anamorphic lenses. The lenses give the film a horizontal lens flare effect that I found to be wonderful. There’s also a normal daylight lighting in many sequences that sets off the glowing anamorphic scenes. It is another connection to the magical realism and gives it such style. I love it.
Christopher Scott is the choreographer and his work is to be commended. It’s not overly fussy but there is a mix of different styles, traditional Broadway, Latin dance, street styles, and the water ballet. It’s impressive and the dance action is passionate, has heat, and technical prowess. These are real dancers doing exciting and sometimes large scale dance scenes. No one looks out of place and the work makes you sway and tap your foot as any good dance sequence should.
IN THE HEIGHTS is the musical that I have always dreamed of. It is poetry and magic. It is filled with the pride of being Latino and an immigrant, the love of Nueva York and the Dominican Republic. It is filled with the love of family and home. The power of dreams and the DREAMERS. It shows the humanity of Latinx people and these characters don’t consider themselves less than anyone else. But it always comes back to the center of the film, the emotional work and resonance of that work. This film is a passionate work of the heart. It works even with the many fantasy elements and story book qualities because the cast of actors and dancers and the film makers all work together emotionally. While I was typing the first paragraph of this review and right now, thinking about the film, I am moved to tears. Why? I don’t expressly know why, but it’s the feeling whenever I give thought to IN THE HEIGHTS, the film. It has that powerful of an emotional effect on me. This is what all film makers, including actors, strive for. What they all give to the audience, their sweat, their body, and their psychic energy to is an emotional connection hoping for reaction to their work. They want you feel something, whatever that may be. They want you to believe in their fantasy that they have tried to make real. They spend their heart’s blood trying to make you believe in a fairy tale. Once upon a time.
With IN THE HEIGHTS, I believe.