The filmed version of In the Heights is an amped up, in-your-face, vibrant celebration of life. From the eye-popping choreography by Christopher Scott to the vivid photography by Alice Brooks capturing every nuance and bead of sweat dropped over a few of the hottest days in New York City, this film encompasses the greatest of our heart’s yearnings and how the possibilities are endless when you’ve not got much to lose. Based on a stage musical written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda (the former wrote the book; the latter wrote music and lyrics), director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation revels in the rhythms and harmonies emanating from the Washington Heights neighborhood, and we can’t help but move our heads and souls along to the beat.
It all starts with the introduction to the various citizens of the Heights (not to be confused with the TV band from the ‘90s that had a hit with “How Do You Talk To An Angel”), including our hero, Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who seems to be telling a group of kids on a beach how he came to be where he is today. Boy, oh boy, that involves everyone – Nina (Leslie Grace), the college girl who may not have lived up to the neighborhood’s expectations when she went to college in California; the beauty shop trio who shower their customers with love and laughter; Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) who works for Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who’s under pressure to sell his business; cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who might have a larger heart and fight inside him than anyone might expect; and Usnavi’s romantic interest, the fashion designer hopeful Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a girl he can’t muster up the courage to ask out on a date.
Most importantly, there’s Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her original Broadway role), the beloved and respected matriarch of the neighborhood who never had kids, so she treats the people as if they were her own. As much as In the Heights is about Usnavi’s self-searching journey to find where his true home is, it’s also Abuela’s story of how she’s seen the children of the neighborhood grow up into people trying to make it their own way. She’s the last of the old guard, having been in the neighborhood since arriving there as a little girl and watching her mother scrape by as a house cleaner; it’s the little things, her mother taught her – using her best napkins, gloves, and other small gestures – that express that little bit of dignity that’s been stripped back by the limited chances they have. And in these hot days, there’s more than the temperature that she has to contend with.
For two hours and 23 minutes, Chu, cinematographer Alice Brooks, and editor Myron Kerstein flip and spin us like a frenzied dance partner through these sizzling days and nights in the Heights. We’re not just flies on the wall watching what’s going on in our characters’ lives; Brooks’ long takes immerse us in each scene, capturing all the moves and musical interplay with a talented eye, knowing when to dazzle us with energy or to lay back and let what’s happening onscreen speak for itself. By choosing to watch In the Heights, you have accepted an invitation to be a part of this fantastic dance, your eyes and ears bouncing in time to the music and tapping your feet to the film’s cacophonous, infectious rhythms. Brooks’ excellent photography has us dancing right next to them on the club floor, in a pool, down the sidewalks and streets, inside or outside buildings (you’ll see what I mean by “outside” in this case), or in the middle of an impromptu courtyard celebration.
When that’s not going on, there are more than enough compelling stories to ponder. Usnavi and Abuela are our solid anchors while we see everyone else swirl around them; their stories, no matter how separated by the years or the eras, are intertwined to the core, both personifying the stay-in-the-fight spirit of the film. It’s a rare to see a movie where all hearts move together as one, with no rancor, violence, or jealousy spoiling the seemingly effortless good feeling it succeeds in fostering. The “make what you can with what you have” theme and spirit are indomitable, and it also takes time to address some of the more timely topics of immigration and racism while mixing it with the deeply personal, humanizing this hotbed topic in a way that both breaks the heart and provides hopeful courage.
The cast’s earnest and truthful performances give this film its power, bringing Hudes and Miranda’s book and lyrics to raucous, joyous life. In the Heights is one of those movies that makes you remember that life, as a whole, can be good. Even though it sometimes takes everything we have to simply get up and face ourselves and the world around us every day, there are things to look forward to and enjoy. It’s in giving and receiving love, friendship, respect, and support that we’re empowered to beat the lottery-like odds of life and get to where you need to be. Sometimes, it’s not where you want to be, but it’s the place where you’re needed right now. And In the Heights is a film that we need right now.