‘In the Heights’ Is the First Great Film of 2021

Forrest Hartman

 

IN THE HEIGHTS

4 stars (out of four)

Director: Jon M. Chu

Starring: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Available: In theaters and on HBO Max (ad free plan)

 

Despite a poor audience response on opening weekend, In the Heights is the first great film of 2021.

 

There is still hope that movie lovers will read the  overwhelmingly positive reviews and either stream the movie or head to theaters in coming weeks, and serious cinemagoers should lobby for that sort of grassroots boost. Since the movie business is about money, executives pay attention to the attributes that inspire viewers, and that makes it excruciating when a picture as beautiful as In the Heights is made available to a wide audience, yet is greeted with disinterest. Sadly, that outcome is one more argument to finance projects like Godzilla vs. Kong or Mortal Kombat (both among the top-grossing pictures of the year), while allowing actual art to languish.

 

Make no mistake … In the Heights is art.  Because the film is based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s early 2000s Broadway musical, it would be easy for audiences to think of it as a filmed theatrical production, ala the Disney+ version of Miranda’s “Hamilton.” But In the Heights is a movie in the truest sense. Miranda co-produced the project, but it’s Jon M. Chu, best known for Crazy Rich Asians, who directed, and Chu opens the story up wonderfully.

 

One of the most common problems with stage-to-screen adaptations is lack of movement. Too often, viewers feel as though they are watching a recorded play due to tightly restricted settings and lengthy dialogue sequences. The latter qualities are staples of stage plays, which rely primarily on the magic of live performance to draw audiences in.

 

To make a truly great theatrical adaptation, a filmmaker must first acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of both theater and film. Then, that filmmaker must pay appropriate homage to the original work, while taking full advantage of the wonders that film allows.

 

 

In the Heights is Miranda’s tribute to Washington Heights, an upper Manhattan neighborhood known for its large immigrant population. Currently, Dominican Americans are demographically dominant, and Miranda’s work revolves largely around the experience of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. Chu – knowing how important it is for viewers to see Washington Heights – takes the action to a variety of regional locations that New Yorkers should recognize. These include Highbridge Pool, the 191st Street Subway Station and J. Hood Wright Park.

 

Chu also sets key scenes on a beach – presumably in the Dominican Republic – and his constantly shifting settings create a sense of action and openness that never allows viewers to reflect on the fact that the material was originally written for presentation on a proscenium state.

 

It also helps that the picture is a musical. When Chu isn’t moving his cast from one beautifully dressed location to another, he is guiding it through some of the most eyepopping musical numbers to hit the screen in years. The splashy (literally) presentation of the tune “96,000” uses Highbridge Pool to great creative effect, with water becoming part of the choreography. This number is so intense that one might draw comparisons to the beautiful traffic jam dance sequence in La La Land.  But Chu has more than one big production number up his sleeve. Each song in the film is sold with panache, and a sequence where young lovers Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace) defy gravity to dance up and down the walls of an apartment complex is one of the most beautiful visual sequences we are likely to see this year.

 

Benny and Nina, like Usnavi, are young adults struggling to find their places in a world where they’re still searching for footing. Thematically, that is the point of In the Heights. The film – like the play – acknowledges not only the uncertainty that comes with youth but the fact that young people of color often walk a different path than their white counterparts. There are two separate romances, with Benny and Nina deciding where their relationship should go while Usnavi longs for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a woman he loves but has been too shy to approach.  The movie is also a meditation on family, with Jimmy Smits playing Nina’s father and Olga Merediz representing the closest thing Usnavi has had to a parent since he was orphaned at a young age.

 

 

All of the performers are wonderful singers who are particularly gifted at selling Miranda’s compositions, which walk a comfortable line that shifts from pop to rap to traditional show music. Those who have seen Hamilton will hear plenty of musical similarities. Miranda’s raps have rhythmic calling cards and vocal flourishes that immediately identify him as the author. To a degree, this can be seen as a limitation -- like that of a pop group that produces one familiar-sounding album after another. But Miranda’s music is so catchy and dynamic that it’s easier to tap your feet than complain. And Miranda’s fans will be pleased to know that he has a small but noteworthy role in the film.

 

In the Heights works in all respects. The story is simple but poignant. The music is likable and filled with memorable lyrics and melodies. The acting is spot on, and Chu’s presentation blends all of these things into an incredible movie experience that really needs to be seen. Go now … and spread the word! 

 

Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a longtime entertainment journalist who teaches at the Department of Journalism & Public Relations at California State University, Chico.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

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