Plenty of films were delayed during the pandemic, but it was an especially shrewd decision to push back “In the Heights” until it could finally screen in theaters. An adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda stage musical of the same name, it’s difficult to imagine audiences rejoicing over its celebration of neighborhood and community from a solitary watch via a computer screen.
But rejoice they will, because “In the Heights” will certainly benefit from some truly exquisite timing. Films about highly specific experiences have long since proved their universality, but precious few will be unable to relate to its anxieties as we begin to emerge from quarantine into a world that is much the same yet irrevocably changed.
We too have changed. Everyone has been affected by COVID or knows someone who has, and for many of us, some of the people and places that brought us joy are now gone forever. And it is that undercurrent of melancholy, which mourns a cherished past in the midst of an uncertain future even during its brightest musical numbers, is what unites. That’s not to say that more common, always cherished tropes aren’t present, but “In The Heights” is very aware that even as we prepare to return to life and normalcy, the past is something we will always carry with us.
“In the Heights” doesn’t feature a main character so much as a central hub that its many stories revolve around in bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who is also the narrator and storyteller. Thank goodness his longtime crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) has her own arc and a charisma to match Ramos’s, since their love story doesn’t much seem worth investing in. They circle each other, but Usnavi’s more urgent courtship is with the neighborhood itself, and the real question is whether he’ll commit to it or depart for the Dominican Republic, the country he left as a child and still dreams of returning to.
Everyone in the neighborhood has their ambitions, and the many residents of Washington Heights speak of a different perspective rather than a simplistic inspirational narrative that was demanded of so many success stories (especially when they involved people of color), whether they fit that narrative or not. No, here America is seen through their eyes, and it’s hardly a land of opportunity and beauty. Much as Rita Moreno described her arrival in New York City from Puerto Rico as a “reverse Oz,” many of the characters in “In the Heights” recall the countries they left as places whose luminous color and beauty seem far more vibrant than the city they now call home.
But where they call home is certainly one of the rosiet depictions of poverty I’ve ever seen. To watch it is to be transported to a place that’s magical even for a musical, where internal divisions in a neighborhood are mostly nonexistent, and black and brown people exist in a kind of harmony that’s only disturbed by an occasional white person who shows up to kill the vibe. Maybe “Heights” was never going to win given I recently rewatched Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” one of the most intelligent, complex depictions of race and racism in all of cinema, but the stage musical from whence this movie sprung knew a thing or two about these darker truths, and how racism and sexism could still twist its claws into those who had the best of intentions.
If “In the Heights” refuses to shine a light onto this kind of darkness, there’s a reason why the word magic crops up. Rosy it may be, but irresistible it remains, no less due to several shrewd filmmaking decisions. The songs were always going to be ridiculously catchy given that it’s a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, and Miranda, who originated the role of Usnavi, is wise enough to relinquish lead duties to Hamilton alum Ramos and keep his own part to what is basically an extended cameo, allowing the Hamilton musical to be an occasional reference rather than a looming shadow.
Jon M. Chu is also one of the few directors working today who has an equally keen eye for spectacle and intimacy, and “In the Heights” requires an especially delicate balance. It celebrates a neighborhood full of dynamic people with numbers that are meant to be as large as their personalities – while spotlighting their individual stories and struggles that obviously speak to the lives of so many in the Latinx community. And goddamn, Chu knocks it out of the park, silencing any remaining doubters who may still somehow view “Crazy Rich Asians” as some kind of fluke.
No, “In the Heights” is a wonder, an unapologetically heartfelt spectacle that never loses sight of the vast array of characters, with its humanism on full display even when it’s on full blast. Many sequences were shot in the neighborhood rather than a backlot, with filming for the song “96,000” alone featuring a staggering 500 extras. At my screening, audiences didn’t just applaud the rousing opening number that introduces the scene and various players within, they did the same for neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) beautifully tender “Paciencia y Fe” with sniffles galore.
It’s hard to resist getting swept up in its power, and I’m of the opinion that it shouldn’t be attempted. As we all begin to reemerge after over a year in isolation, a musical that’s such an unabashedly proud celebration of not just life, but the hope that some things can not only be rebuilt but improved might be just the soothing balm for our moment, a time capsule of how we relearned to embrace each other and our always unfolding future.