Welcome Back to the Cinema

IN THE HEIGHTS is the major movie adaptation of the famous Tony- and Grammy Award winning stage musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda, which first debuted on Broadway in 2008.

Director Jon M. Chu, perhaps best known for “Crazy Rich Asians” has brought the vibrant stage show to life with energy, colour, and some beautiful cinema.

Set in the Washington Heights area of New York, the film follows many of the inhabitants as they struggle with their day to day lives in the close community. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is the owner of a local convenience store who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic where he lived until age eight.

Through Usnavi, we meet the rest of the characters in a fantastic opening song which was released on YouTube before the film was released: Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, Corey Hawkins as taxi dispatcher Benny, Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, Jimmy Smits as Kevin Rosario and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, the woman Usnavi just cannot quite ask out on a date.

The film is a huge love letter to the area and the sense of community there, where many settled to pursue their American Dream. We feel their longing for the home they left and their struggles with the home they are trying to make. There is unrequited love, the search for belonging, the struggle with casual racism and discrimination, and the conflicted feelings of trying to move on or moving away, seen through salon owners Daphne Rubin-Vega and Stephanie Beatriz who are relocating downtown, and Leslie Grace in her feeling of failure after returning from Stanford.

Chu’s direction of the film is brilliant, and while some movie musicals struggle to open the action out, allowing the staginess to linger, it is hard to imagine this show on a stage. Whether it is the expansive dance numbers in the streets like a modern Busby Berkeley extravaganza, the huge number in the neighborhood pool, or the more intimate songs in quiet alleys or indoors, the film expertly works its spell and carries you along.

The movie was largely filmed on location in the Washington Heights area, in cooperation with the locals, and the production design is wonderful in recreating diverse locations – the designers created shop facades and special printed murals to dress the area for filming which could still allow the residents to go about their real lives.

One highlight of the film is Paciencia Y Fe where Abuela Claudia reflects on her life from Cuba to the US. The scene is filmed in a subway car then in a 900 foot long tunnel under the streets and the use of lighting is stunning. This scene also includes some of the best choreography in the film, with the dancers appearing like the ghosts of her ancestors.

At times the film feels a little long, but if shortening it means losing some stand out cinematic moments, then we should be happy to keep them: the balcony scene between Benny and Nina which is a scalp-tingling reimagining of an innovative dance number from Fred Astaire’s Royal Wedding, the one-take scene between Usnavi and Vanessa in the empty apartment, and the shots of Usnavi looking out of the bodega with the dancing neighbors reflected in the windows.

The choreography in the dance numbers is excellent with some brilliant dancers who are all ages, heights, shapes, and sizes. This is indeed a community.

The cast are uniformly excellent, but make no mistake, Anthony Ramos is a star, lighting up the screen whenever he is on.

The film is entertaining, colourful, funny, and cinematic. This is a film about the gulf between dreams and reality, about the “small” people with big feelings whose stories will tug at your heart. And the closing shot is the perfect finish.

See this film on the biggest screen possible. It has moments of wonder which remind you what cinema can be, especially after the past year. You will leave the theatre with the infectious salsa, hip-hop, merengue Latin rhythms in your ears, and dreaming you could dance like the folks in the Heights.

In fact, who cares? Dance anyway, and don’t let anything hold you back.

First published on Reel Anarchy.

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