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In the Heights
Warner Bros. // PG-13 // June 11, 2021
List Price: Unknown
The musical genre can be a tricky sell in the modern movie market. While they certainly can perform well both critically and financially, making one that is both quality and marketable to general audiences is a challenging feat. In the Heights was originally set to be made by The Weinstein Company, which was then rescued by Warner Bros. for $50 million. While I knew that the film was based on Lin-Manuel Miranda's stage play, I knew very little about the story or the characters walking into the theater. Despite the initial hype established around the film, I wasn't sure it would be my jam. By the end of the first scene, it became clear to me that I was in for an exciting and unique experience.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) recalls his memories and love for the Washington Heights region of New York. As a bodega owner, he has been saving every penny to reach his dream of returning home to the Dominican Republic. Every morning, he longingly looks at photographs of what he refers to as the best days of his life and of his father, who has since passed away. As Usnavi tells his story, we meet the other main characters. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) has caught the attention of many men in Washington Heights, including Usnavi, although he can never quite establish the confidence to ask her out.
Nina (Leslie Grace) is returning home to the Heights after her first semester at Stanford, feeling ashamed to have left her community for college. Her father (Jimmy Smits) is willing to do anything it takes to afford for her to continue school to have a better life. Meanwhile, Nina reconnects with Benny (Corey Hawkins), who still has feelings for her, but he doesn't want to hold her back from reaching her potential at Stanford. Meanwhile, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is a Cuban immigrant and the matriarch of the neighborhood. She often acts as the heart of both the community and the film itself. Much of the story's most heartfelt and touching moments come from her uplifting those around her.
One of the biggest strengths of In the Heights is how sincere and genuine it is. The passion and love put into this project from its creators is felt in every frame. It's a love letter to New York, family, friends, and the community of Washington Heights. The story's most sentimental moments are handled with such care that it tugs on the heartstrings with ease. The characters feel authentic, as does the setting, which truly transforms into a character all its own.
While we come to care about all of the core characters, some of them are provided less than rich motivations and act more as support for others. Vanessa is a fashion designer and Benny works at Nina's father's business, although they are both less fleshed out than their respective love interests. The Dreamers subplot involving Sonny feels like more of an afterthought that could have been integrated better. However, they all still remain to be characters that we want to see find happiness in the end. The performances are pitch perfect all around, which do help fill in some of these gaps.
Director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D) is no stranger to capturing rhythm on film; In the Heights is no different in that regard. This is meant to be seen and heard in a theater to fully take advantage of a large screen in a dark room and a loud surround sound system. The cinematography is bright, colorful, and an absolute joy to look at. Chu utilizes a lot of playful visuals through each of the songs, such as various graphics and by making typical objects and sounds found in the city part of the soundtrack. The choreography is absolutely stellar throughout. While there are a couple strong songs in here, not many of them stand on their own. Nevertheless, there is some diversity in the music style, allowing each character to have their own rhythm and flow.
Aside from a couple pacing issues, In the Heights is a stellar film. Even if the musical genre doesn't typically call out to you, this shouldn't be dismissed. It will be released in theaters and HBO Max on the same day, but it's worth going to the theater for the experience, if you're safe and able to. While this film tackles some important issues, it also acts as a beacon of joy and escapism. This is particularly nice, given what the world has gone through over the past year with the pandemic. There is such passion and energy put into this project and it shows. In the Heights is a musical dream that hits just right for the upcoming summer season.