Director Chu takes musical genre to new heights
“In the Heights,” the film adaptation of the Broadway musical by “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda, is a splash in a pool amidst the summer heat. In a welcome reemergence of studio films hitting theaters, the musical looks to be one of the hottest flicks this summer. Set against the backdrop of a few scorching hot summer days in the changing Latino neighborhood of Manhatten’s Washington Heights is the story of immigrants and their children, each trying to achieve their “suenito,” or dream.
Centered around a young adult son of a Dominican Republic immigrant, Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) has been saving money to leave the city and rebuild his father’s bar back in his home country. He lives with Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a grandmotherly figure who raised him after the death of his parents, and he has an eye on fashion-designer wannabe Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in a beauty salon. He owns a bodega in the neighborhood, helped by his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). Meanwhile, friends Benny (Corey Hawkins), a cab dispatcher, and Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) reconnect after Nina’s return home from a poor experience at Stanford, paid for by her father Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) who owns the cab company. They’re a family of neighbors who help support one another through the tough times.
Directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), the movie is as luscious in the storytelling as it is rich in its colorful portrayal of the culture in Washington Heights, and it sells Manuel Miranda’s syncopated rhythms and vibrant melodies adapted to the musical. From the big choreography numbers with a large cast to just two dancing on the fire escape of their apartment, it’s a visually stunning masterpiece.
At 2 hours and 15 minutes, the movie easily could’ve felt slow as compared to a live theater performance, and with a cast its size with so many characters’ plot lines at stake, it would be easy to not give each the attention it needs, but Chu expertly pieced together the storylines to offer depth and life to each character. In addition, he brought to life the music and dancing that flips other musical to movie renditions from their feet. From adding in animated graphics with rap and hand movements, to the unique settings of music and dance pieces, to the camera angles and choices, and using film to bring to life a song that even a live performance couldn’t do, like setting big musical numbers in fun settings like a pool, or using unique camera angles that flip the horizon on its axis as characters run sideways on the outer brick wall of an apartment, or even toss fabric rolls from the sky.
In addition, Chu’s choice in casting a large swath of characters was spot on. Having played the role of Usnavi once before in a run at the Kennedy Center in 2018, Ramos was an obvious casting choice from the get-go, but he sells every ounce of his character through the screen in a remarkable way. Diaz is the perfect sidekick as Sonny: young and fresh with wide-eyed hopes for his future. Smits is a class-act performer and is as relatable as he is the king of a scene. And the women of the show: from Barrera to Merediz to Grace. Manuel Miranda also makes a couple appearances, as well.
“In the Heights” is a story about immigrants and the dreams that brought them to the United States and into the neighborhood in the city. It’s a story of lives lived to see a dream to a fruition, of sacrifices made, and of love. And while it’s a story about the Latino community in the Heights, it’s also so very relatable to everyone who has had a dream for their future -- those who know the struggle of trying to save pennies to accomplish that dream or making sacrifices for a future.
Chu spared no expenses for the satisfaction of the viewers, and because of that, “In the Heights” is exactly the film that movie-goers will be craving to see again and again this summer.