May 21st, 2021
MOVIE: IN THE HEIGHTS
STARRING: ANTHONY RAMOS, MELISSA BARRERA, COREY HAWKINS, LESLIE GRACE
DIRECTED BY: JON M. CHU
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
I like to consider myself an enthusiast of musicals. Oklahoma! Sound of Music. West Side Story. They tend to lift my spirits up and have cemented beautiful songs into my brain for the rest of my life. That of course depends on if the musical is any good. For big Hollywood movies, the musical has become a bit of a product as much as an artform, where the look of it, the cast, the costumes, the sets, the songs, all seem to blur a bit together. We have, however, had a few moments of a fresh injection to the genre; With La La Land proving a story of romance can be told through the eyes of the romantics. With only a select set of songs, a dreamlike experience of color, music, and dance, while introducing conventional audiences to the artistic styles of Jacques Demy. In the Heights helps continue that tradition, with one of the more modern, elaborate, and engaging musicals in some time. Director Jon M. Chu has a beautiful flair for a musical about community, made with a collaborative collection of talents, and large scale production value. In the Heights will lift audiences up high for an exhilarating musical experience.
The story starts fast and rarely slows down, introducing us to main character Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), living in the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. He operates the local bodega, which he took on after his parents passed away, and has big dreams of going back to his home in the Dominican Republic to own a bar like his father once did. We’re introduced to the majority of characters in the euphoric opening title song “In the Heights”, meeting love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who has dreams of becoming a fashion designer, friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works for taxi & limo business owner Mr. Rosario (Jimmy Smits). The neighborhood is a buzz, with the summer getting hotter, and now Rosario’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) is back home from college, sparking old romances for her and Benny. The other major players are Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who is like a grandmother to everyone, especially Usnavi and young high schooler Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who look to her for maternal guidance. All together, they make-up the vibrant and delightful ensemble of In the Heights. And then there is everything else.
In order to justify why In the Heights is a spectacular moment, it’s important to understand the various things that Jon Chu and company get right. I can’t speak from knowing the stage production, which may make me a better target, but this is a musical that feels lived in. No gimmicks, such as Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables or the disaster that is Cats. Not relying on the pop music of Abba as Mamma Mia does. Many of the sets look real, truly set in a New York neighborhood, where we can see the sun hitting the pavement, the food trucks waiting for customers, or the kids playing basketball in the park. The screenplay is adapted by the musical creator Quiara Alegria Hudes, with the lyrics popping from the legendary Lin-Manuel Miranda. And Chu uses vibrant animated effects to help ease the songs along, adding a dash of energy that wasn’t expected, while the vocal work from the entire cast is collaboratively spectacular. There’s never a missed step in the flow of In the Heights, with the music becoming a part of the fore and background, while the choreography adds a skill that few musicals have these days. In the Heights makes The Greatest Showman look like it was produced in a cheap factory, while this is the genuine article.
And then there is the vast and incredibly talented cast, which is led by Anthony Ramos. If you don’t know Ramos from his co-starring work in Hamilton, you will certainly remember him now. His mixture of singing and dancing is on the path of a young Fred Astair, where the sky’s the limit, and it starts here. Everyone surrounding Ramos is one bigger surprise from the next. The beautiful voices of Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace match their outer beauty, while Corey Hawkins seems to have been concealing a hidden talent all along. The veteran work of Jimmy Smits is delightful to see, but the veteran star is Olga Merediz reprising her role on the stage as Abuela, who breaks through in her song “Paciencia Y Fe”, and undoubtedly deserves a best-supporting Oscar nomination here. Her singing, emotion, and passion will bring tears to the eyes of many. It’s easy to see why she won the Tony for the same role.
The narrative bounces between the various characters and their struggles. The neighborhood is changing, pushing back against gentrification, with the ladies from the local beauty shop moving uptown, while Mr. Rosario is selling the business to help support Nina in college at Stanford. All these events take place, while there is a countdown to a citywide blackout, which will be a turning point for everyone in the neighborhood. By the end of In the Heights, it’s impossible to not feel like you’re a part of the family, a member of the community, and living through the eyes of Usnavi.
There’s so many reasons to praise In the Heights, from the stunning visuals, fascinating set pieces, and spectacular cast. It’s a fresh new musical, with an old school sense of what is needed to make a musical great. It’s the direction from Jon Chu that rises to the occasion, with inspiration from Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and of course Singin’ in the Rain. Now we can add In the Heights to that list of great musicals. It’s a tribute to hispanic communities, a bright youth of today that has incredible amounts of talents to provide to the world, and the courage to live out their dreams. In the Heights takes the movie musical to an entirely different level.
IN THE HEIGHTS IS IN THEATERS EVERYWHERE ON FRIDAY JUNE 11th
Written by: Leo Brady