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In the Heights
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by Peter Sobczynski

"On The Town"
5 stars

In recent years, it has become evident that the most important sequence in most movie musicals is almost always the first big production number. While audiences were once perfectly satisfied with characters suddenly bursting into song and dance, the perception these days is that while that may be fine on stage, some viewers are not willing to accept such things in the ostensibly more realistic world of film. Therefore, the first number is key because it not only theoretically sets the tone for what is to follow but it also serves as an indication as to the mindsets of the filmmakers—are they going to play timid and try to conceptually rationalize the singing and dancing in order to satisfy uncertain viewers or are they just going to go for it and embrace those conventions wholeheartedly on the assumption that moviegoers will be willing to join them.

As the opening title number from “In the Heights,” the screen adaptation of the award-winning 2008 musical that put composer Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map and paved the way for his follow-up “Hamilton,” unfolds a few minutes in, it is abundantly clear that it is taking the second path. As the hero, bodega manager Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), muses that “the streets were made of music” in his Washington Heights neighborhood, we see and hear just that—the ordinary noises of city life developing into a musical motif that eventually morphs into a full-blown sequence in which the entire neighborhood seems to break out into singing and dancing. It is a thrilling and exuberant sequence that kicks the film off on an incredible high and, if that weren’t impressive enough, manages to sustain it for pretty much its entire running time.

Like any number of past musicals, the film is centered on the dreams that are maintained by its characters and their attempts to achieve them. For Usnavi, the dream is to save up enough money to one day go back to the Dominican Republic, where he was born, and repair and reopen the beachside bar that his late parents once owned. For Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who is Usnavi’s not-so-secret crush (embodied by the free cup of coffee he gives her every morning), she dreams of leaving her job at the local beauty salon run by Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), getting an apartment downtown and making it as a fashion designer. For Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who runs the local cabstand, his dream is to see his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who is away at her freshman year at Stanford, to succeed and make something of herself in the world. As for Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), he is a literal Dreamer who is willing to take to the streets to fight in response to threats to the future of the DACA program.

Of curse, these dreams are not that easily attained. Vanessa is crushed by her inability to pass a credit check in order to get that new apartment. When Nina returns home, she reveals that she plans to drop out because of the extraordinary difficulties of being a Latina at a place like Stanford, news that does not sit well with her father, who is determined to get her to return at all costs. As for Usnavi, he is coming closer to accomplishing his dream but is then faced with the notion of leaving the neighborhood, a place that seems to be teeming with life that not even an extended power outage can completely dim.

This latter aspect is nicely conveyed by the decision to actually shoot the film in the actual Washington Heights neighborhood. Director John M. Chu (whose past films have included “Step Up 3D,” the best of that franchise, and “Crazy Rich Asians”) makes effective use of the locations—the streets, the local swimming pool, the beauty parlor where Vanessa works—as a way of establishing their reality and how the various characters coexist in this environment so that when they do finally begin to sing and dance, the naturalness of the environment contrasts nicely with the artifice of the singing and dancing. This aspect works so well, in fact, that as I was watching it, I found myself wondering how such scenes could possibly have been as good on the stage, where it is all artifice, as they are as presented here. “In the Heights” is hardly the first musical to shoot on location but few have made as effective use of those locations as it does. This is not to suggest that the film isn’t willing to embrace artifice when it is necessary. In the most powerful musical number, Usnavi’s elderly Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) looks back at her life, the good and the bad, as an extended subway train whose cars she is passing through. In another, Nina and on/off boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins) are so giddy with the possibilities before them that they literally find themselves dancing on the side of a building.

Another smart move made by the film is the decision to avoid utilizing big-name stars in the major roles (a previous attempt to bring this to the screen was evidently scuttled in part by studio insistence to cast the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira) and instead put them in supporting roles—even Miranda, who played Usnavi on stage, only turns up in a smaller part as a local sno-cone vendor locked in a mortal battle for the hearts, minds and loose change of the neighborhood kids with a Mister Softee truck. (In an in-joke, the Softee guy is played by Christopher Jackson, who co-starred with Manuel on stage in “Hamilton.”) Since we don’t have any great prior associations with the main players, it is infinitely easier to accept them both as real people with real conflicts and as singers and dancers. All of the leads are pretty electrifying throughout and even during the rare moments when the dramatic aspects begin to falter (especially in some of the scenes depicting the conflict between Nina and her father), they bring an energy to the material that makes those moments work and the stronger ones genuinely soar.

As most of you probably know, “In the Heights” was originally scheduled to be released in theaters last summer until events forced it to be delayed. Now it is finally coming out and, funnily enough, it almost feels as if it were specifically designed to come out at this particular moment in time, both in its basic tale about the joys and importance of community and by being the kind of film that is best seen and experienced in a theater with an appreciative audience. I understand why some people might still be skittish about setting foot in a multiplex these days and I don’t want to dissuade or diminish those concerns at all—for those people, it will be appearing for the next 30 days on HBO MAX. However, for those who are comfortable with once again dipping their toes into the theatrical experience and remembering the ways in which a true cinematic spectacle can make you laugh, cry and grow positively giddy with excitement over what can accomplished on the big screen, “Into the Heights” does exactly that and more.

Oh yeah—stay through the end credits. Trust me on this.

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originally posted: 06/09/21 02:11:24
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  11-Jun-2021 (PG-13)
  DVD: 31-Aug-2021

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