In the Heights (2021)
In the Heights (2021)

Genre: Musical and Romantic Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 23 min.

Release Date: June 11th, 2021 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Jon M. Chu Actors: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Lin-Manuel Miranda

 


 

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nce upon a time, in a faraway land called Nueva York, in the steadily disappearing neighborhood of Washington Heights, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a bodega, currently contending with the sweltering heat. Along with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), the Dominican Republic transplant interacts with a wide array of locals – from the barrio’s adoptive grandmother (Olga Merediz) to prominent businessman Kevin (Jimmy Smits) to a trio of gossiping salon ladies (led by Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela) to the girl he’s too shy to ask out: Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer. There’s also the car service dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins), “little sister” Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) returning from an elite school, and frozen treat vendor Piraguero (Lin-Manuel Miranda) – whose day-to-day routines are unavoidably vivacious.

Usnavi narrates from a bar in the Caribbean, dubbed El Sueñito (meaning “little dream”), to a foursome of children, anxious to learn about his experiences in America. As a result, the story proper is a flashback (though not so straightforward as that), which is peppered with additional flashbacks and rapid edits and graphics to impart a quirky vibe. The style is immediately fantastical, which works well considering that within a matter of seconds, the main characters begin singing their conversations. It’s not as jarring as the start of “La La Land,” though it has its comparisons, especially when background roles in the street geometrically arrange into expertly choreographed dancers.

With Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ stage play as the basis, the music is peppy and incredibly fast, merging hip-hop with rap, frequently rattling off words with such speed that they’re difficult to sort out. Nevertheless, the rhymes are top-notch and the flow possesses a rollicking cadence; the energy is exceptional, aided by remarkably athletic backup dancers. When Vanessa and Nina get solo numbers, the pace slows, allowing for soaring, thrilling notes that lend to catchier, more emotional tunes. As a result, the women’s songs tend to be more unique and memorable, while the men’s blend together as if continual reprises picking up after breaks – entertaining but indiscernible as separate pieces. Curiously, the lip-syncing at the start, particularly with Ramos, doesn’t line up all that well, though Benny’s introduction initiates a spell of superior consistency.

While the musical numbers are the highlight, always spirited and inspirational, bits of commentary on life in the Heights are also notable. Amid two separate love stories, both sweet and genuine, is the notion that everyone has specific dreams of success, galvanized by a lottery ticket sale. But even without life-changing wealth, the modest goals of a higher education, better jobs, renovating a family business, or providing for children prove to be considerable hurdles. Pressures on youth living up to family expectations, generational differences in the Latino community, political protests (concerning citizenship), and systemically racist financial policies also crop up, all while a looming blackout (a multi-faceted sense of powerlessness) threatens to interrupt a big night of revelry – shedding light on an overlooked community’s everyday ordeals. Still, even with a running time that is a touch overlong (the last act is strangely where it drags the most), with at least two songs that clearly don’t add to the plot (despite having the same peppiness and zeal), the smattering of conflicts can’t overcome the joyously fixed outpouring of highly vigorous voices and bodies. And the parting shots are quite moving.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10