Film & Television

‘In the Heights,’ The Fiesta We Need Right Now

In the third act of In the Heights, Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical, the neighborhood hairdresser Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) upbraids her neighbors …

Hey! Hey!
What’s this tonteria that I’m seeing on the street?
I never thought I’d see the day
Since when are Latin people scared of heat?

Rather than languish after a blackout has left them “powerless,” Daniela encourages them to “have a carnaval del barrio!” Soon everyone is singing and dancing, and I was struck by two things. First, that I’d lost count of the movie’s bigger (and better) than life musical numbers. And second, that dancing in the street or even up the side of a building — with friends, family, and neighbors — is probably the best metaphor for what we all need right now.

Although it’s never mentioned, COVID-19 is very much a part of In the Heights story, at least behind the scenes. Filmed on location in the summer of 2019, the movie’s creative team, talented stars, and countless ensembles didn’t know what lay ahead. Originally scheduled for release in summer 2020, it was a delayed a year, and while it’s one of the first major pictures to hit reopened cinemas, it’s simultaneously available to stream. Many people still aren’t ready to go back to the movies.

The story of a neighborhood threatened but persevering resonates in the wake of the virus. Washington Heights, the film’s eponymous location, was disproportionately affected, with nearly 10 percent of residents infected and more than 500 deaths, making it one of the worst-hit areas in Manhattan.

But In the Heights was conceived long before any of us started wearing masks or hoarding toilet paper. In one of those rags-to-riches stories so beloved by the entertainment industry. Miranda, who would later become a global phenomenon with his hip-hop Hamilton, began working on the piece while he was still an undergraduate. (All right, he wasn’t exactly in rags; he was a theater major at prestigious Wesleyan University.) Inspired in part by Jonathan Larson’s Rent, Miranda wanted to write a musical about the places and people he knew growing up in northern Manhattan. After years of rewrites and workshops, during which time Miranda supported himself by substitute teaching, In the Heights finally opened off-Broadway in 2007 and on-Broadway in 2008. It won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations. It won a Grammy Award and was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.

In the Heights tells the story of a fast-disappearing neighborhood of working people, mostly Latin-American immigrants, who embrace their culture; add color and music, love and laughter to their city; and get along improbably well. (Imagine if everyone at Sesame Street grew up and still wanted to hang out together.) Within this small corner of New York, there are dreams and ambitions, struggles and heartaches, and muchísimo amor.

Our guide is Usnavi de la Vega (sensational Hamilton alumnus Anthony Ramos), who owns the corner bodega, where he employs his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) but pays him in cash because Sonny’s father is less than sober, and his U.S. residence is less than documented. When Usnavi isn’t daydreaming about moving back to the Dominican Republic to reopen his father’s business, he’s mooning over Vanessa (triple-threat and gorgeous Melissa Barrera). Vanessa aspires to be a fashion designer and to move to a more prestigious address downtown, but for now she’s working at the local salon, run by Daniela, who also employs Cuca (Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco) and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), and is preparing to move her business to the Bronx. Also being edged out of the neighborhood is limo service owner Kevin Rosario (still sexy Jimmy Smits) who is struggling to pay for his gifted daughter Nina (lovely Leslie Grace) to attend Stanford, although Nina doesn’t plan to return after encountering some ugly anti-Latino racism there. Eager to comfort her is Benny (charismatic Corey Hawkins), who works for Rosario but sets his sights on greater things. Certainly greater than selling shaved ice from a piragua cart (Miranda himself in a welcome cameo) or spray-painting graffiti on storefront security grates (Noah Catala). Watching over everything and everyone is “Abuela” Claudia (simply magnificent Olga Merediz), the community’s honorary grandmother.

Confused? As Usnavi teases children in the movie’s slightly too sweet prologue: “I hope you’re writin’ this down; I’m gonna test you later.” Life in the Heights is complicated and messy. Even the film’s release has proven to be messy, as its creators have been criticized for ignoring Black Latinos in their casting of major roles. Miranda has publicly apologized, “I hear that, without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the world feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy. In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry.” 

Although the film runs over two hours, the creators (Miranda and Chu are well matched by original playwright and here screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes) had to cut songs and at least one major character from the original stage version. But from the opening scenes through the final credits, In the Heights dazzles with heartfelt ballads and grand musical numbers, reminiscent of Hollywood classics like An American in Paris, and, of course, West Side Story. “96,000,” a brilliant homage to the films of Esther Williams and Busby Berkeley, was filmed at Highbridge Pool on Amsterdam Avenue and 173rd Street. Opened in 1936, the public facility was built to accommodate 4,880 swimmers. Chu and choreographer Christopher Scott seem to have found at least that many jaw-droppingly talented dancers. The number (as well as several others) is spectacular.

In the Heights will probably be nominated for dozens of awards in the coming year. But there’s one we should all look out (and root) for. Merediz, Cuban-American and age 65, reprising her role as Abuela Claudia from the original stage cast, is at the film’s very heart. Her passionate anthem “Paciencia y Fe” (patience and faith) allows her to tell her immigrant’s story in a dream world of vintage New York subways and outstanding modern dance. While most of the film is a joyful mix of salsa and rap, Merediz’s solo is soulful, terribly sad, but tremendously resilient. “Alabanza,” she tells her surrogate grandchildren, hold up the small blessings of the everyday and rejoice.

The last time I watched a movie in a theater was February 2020. Returning to an albeit nearly empty cinema and abandoning myself to all the joys and sorrow and fiesta that is In the Heights was exactly what the doctor ordered.

One last thing. Whether you watch In the Heights at your local cinema or on your couch, stay with it through the end of the credits for a little la ñapa from the film’s creators. Alabanza!

In the Heights is in theaters now. You can also watch it on HBO Max. For an exhilarating taste, sample the movie’s first eight minutes here.

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