KTEP - El Paso, Texas

'In The Heights' Is A Spirited, Socially Undistanced, Summer Crowd Pleaser

Jun 10, 2021
Originally published on June 11, 2021 12:25 pm

In the Heights couldn't be more perfectly timed. For one thing, summer movies don't get much more summery than this one, which takes place during a record-breaking New York heat wave. For another, this vibrant screen adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda stage musical captures something we've largely gone without over the past year: a joyous sense of togetherness.

This is the most socially undistanced movie I've seen in months. The action unfolds in crowded store aisles and gossip-filled beauty salons where everyone knows everyone. The musical numbers, which blend hip-hop, Latin pop, salsa and other styles, frequently spill out into the surrounding neighborhood. The actors become dancers in an electrifying street ballet.

A lot of this is packed into the movie's transporting opening sequence, which brings us into this pan-Latino barrio in Washington Heights. Miranda pops up in a small role as a vendor, selling shaved ice out of a pushcart, but our real guide to this Upper Manhattan neighborhood is Usnavi de la Vega, played by a terrific Anthony Ramos.

Usnavi owns a popular corner bodega that's especially prized for its café con leche. As he raps about the challenges of running his scrappy little business in a place that's rapidly being gentrified, he's joined by a chorus of voices from the neighborhood singing about their own struggles to get by.

As much as he loves Washington Heights and the people who live there, Usnavi longs to return to the beaches of the Dominican Republic where he grew up. He hopes his teenage cousin Sonny, played by Gregory Diaz IV, might come with him, but Sonny, an undocumented immigrant, dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen in a subplot that ties into recent headlines. One of the more poignant insights of In the Heights is that everyone has a different concept of home.

Usnavi has a long-standing crush on Vanessa, played by an excellent Melissa Barrera, who's hoping to move downtown and become a fashion designer. Leslie Grace plays their friend Nina, an academic superstar who's just had a rough year at Stanford, where she feels she doesn't belong. But her father, Kevin — a nice turn by Jimmy Smits — wants Nina to stick with it: If she can't get out of the Heights and succeed, he thinks, what hope is there for anyone else?

Kevin, who immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico decades ago, runs a cab company that's one of the few remaining Latino-owned businesses in the area. As rents go up and people and businesses are forced out, the community gets a shot of excitement when Usnavi finds out that someone bought a winning lottery ticket for a $96,000 jackpot from his bodega.

I saw In the Heights onstage in Los Angeles back in 2010, and while the screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes has made some smart tweaks and trims to her original book for the musical, some of the material's basic weaknesses persist here. The various romantic and aspirational subplots are engrossing enough, but feel thinly stretched at more than two hours. Washington Heights looks more vivid and immediate on-screen than it did onstage, but in some ways the simplistic, relentlessly upbeat nature of the story seems all the more glaring.

Still, there's nothing wrong with staying upbeat right now, and the director Jon M. Chu is very much up to the task. Chu previously directed Crazy Rich Asians, and he's good at squeezing resonant ideas about generational conflict and cultural confusion into a deft, crowd-pleasing package. It's worth noting that Chu also made two entries in the Step Up dance-movie franchise, and while I sometimes wish he would slow down the editing and let the musical numbers breathe more, the sheer dynamism of his filmmaking is pretty hard to resist.

In the Heights may not be a great movie, but it's a pretty great moviegoing experience. There are lovely moments here, like when Benny and Nina do a surreal, gravity-defying dance along the side of an apartment building. There are also exhilarating ones, like when the neighborhood, reeling from a heat-wave-triggered blackout, pulls together to throw the mother of all block parties.

And there's a knockout solo from Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood's adopted grandmother, played by Olga Merediz, wonderfully reprising her Tony-nominated role. Claudia's big number is called "Paciencia y Fe," or "Patience and Faith," values she's clung to since she moved from Cuba back in the '40s. She's the living embodiment of this movie's loving and enduring spirit.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Years before the phenomenal success of "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda had a big hit with "In The Heights," which premiered on Broadway in 2008 and won four Tony Awards, including best musical. Now, after a one-year delay due to the pandemic, the long-awaited film adaptation of "In The Heights" is being released in theaters and on HBO Max. Our film critic Justin Chang says it's an invigorating experience and an ideal way to ring in the summer

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "In The Heights" couldn't be more perfectly timed. For one thing, summer movies don't get much more summery than this one, which takes place during a record-breaking New York heat wave. For another, this vibrant screen adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda stage musical captures something we've largely gone without over the past year - a joyous sense of togetherness. This is the most socially undistanced movie I've seen in months. The action unfolds in a crowded store aisles and gossip-filled beauty salons where everyone knows everyone. Musical numbers, which blend hip-hop, Latin pop, salsa and other styles, frequently spill out into the surrounding neighborhood. The actors become dancers in an electrifying street ballet.

A lot of this is packed into the movie's transporting opening sequence, which brings us into this pan-Latino barrio in Washington Heights. Miranda pops up in a small role as a vendor selling shaved ice out of a pushcart. But our real guide to this Upper Manhattan neighborhood is Usnavi de la Vega, played by a terrific Anthony Ramos. Usnavi owns a popular corner bodega that's especially prized for its cafe con leche. As he raps about the challenges of running his scrappy little business in a place that's rapidly being gentrified, he's joined by a chorus of voices from the neighborhood singing about their own struggles to get by.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

ANTHONY RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) I hope you're writing this down. I'm going to test you later. I'm getting tested. Times are tough on this bodega. Two months ago, somebody bought Ortega's. Our neighbors started packing up and picking up. And ever since the rents went up, it's gotten mad expensive, but we live with just enough.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) In the Heights, I flip the lights and start my day. There are fights, endless debts and bills to pay. In the Heights, I can't survive without cafe.

RAMOS: (As Usnavi) I serve cafe.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) 'Cause tonight seems like a million years away in Washington...

RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) Next up - ding - Kevin...

CHANG: As much as he loves Washington Heights and the people who live there, Usnavi longs to return to the beaches of the Dominican Republic, where he grew up. He hopes his teenage cousin, Sonny, played by Gregory Diaz IV, might come with him. But Sonny, an undocumented immigrant, dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen in a subplot that ties into recent headlines. One of the more poignant insights of "In The Heights" is that everyone has a different concept of home.

Usnavi has a longstanding crush on Vanessa, played by an excellent Melissa Barrera, who's hoping to move downtown and become a fashion designer. Leslie Grace plays their friend Nina, an academic superstar who's just had a rough year at Stanford, where she feels she doesn't belong. But her father, Kevin, a nice turn by Jimmy Smits, wants Nina to stick with it. If she can't get out of the Heights and succeed, he thinks, what hope is there for anyone else?

Kevin, who immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico decades ago, runs a cab company that's one of the few remaining Latino-owned businesses in the area. As rents go up and people and businesses are forced out, the community gets a shot of excitement when Usnavi finds out that someone bought a winning lottery ticket from his bodega. In this number, he and his friends, including Nina's boyfriend, Benny, played by Corey Hawkins, fantasize about what they would do with a $96,000 jackpot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Ninety-six thousand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Damn.

RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Ninety-six thousand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Dollars. Holla (ph).

RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Ninety-six thousand.

NOAH CATALA: (As Graffiti Pete) That's a lot of spray cans.

RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Ninety-six thousand.

COREY HAWKINS: (As Benny, rapping) Yo, if I won the lotto tomorrow, well, I know I wouldn't bother going on no spending spree. I'll pick a business school and pay the entrance fee. And maybe if you're lucky, you'll stay friends with me. I'll be your businessman, richer than Nina's daddy. Tiger Woods and I on the links, and he's my caddy. My money's making money. I'm going from po' (ph) to moto. Keep the bling. I want the brass ring like Frodo.

CHANG: I saw "In The Heights" on stage in Los Angeles back in 2010. And while the screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes has made some smart tweaks and trims to her original book for the musical, some of the material's basic weaknesses persist here. The various romantic and aspirational subplots are engrossing enough but feel thinly stretched at more than two hours. Washington Heights looks more vivid and immediate on screen than it did on stage, but in some ways, the simplistic, relentlessly upbeat nature of the story seems all the more glaring.

Still, there's nothing wrong with staying upbeat right now, and the director, Jon M. Chu, is very much up to the task. Chu previously directed "Crazy Rich Asians," and he's good at squeezing resonant ideas about generational conflict and cultural confusion into a deft, crowd-pleasing package. It's worth noting that Chu also made two entries in the "Step Up" dance movie franchise. And while I sometimes wish he would slow down the editing and let the musical numbers breathe more, the sheer dynamism of his filmmaking is pretty hard to resist.

"In The Heights" may not be a great movie, but it's a pretty great moviegoing experience. There are lovely moments here, like when Benny and Nina do a surreal, gravity-defying dance along the side of an apartment building. There are also exhilarating ones, like when the neighborhood, reeling from a heat-wave-triggered blackout, pulls together to throw the mother of all block parties. And there's a knock-out solo from Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood's adopted grandmother, played by Olga Merediz, wonderfully reprising her Tony-nominated role. Claudia's big number is called "Paciencia y Fe" - or "Patience And Faith" - values she's clung to since she moved from Cuba back in the '40s. She's the living embodiment of this movie's loving and enduring spirit.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "In The Heights," opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

OLGA MEREDIZ: (As Abuela Claudia, singing) I remember nights, anger in the streets, hunger at the windows, women folding clothes, playing with my friends in the summer rain. Mama needs a job. Mama says we're poor. One day you say, vamos a Nueva York. And Nueva York was far, but Nueva York had work, and so we came. And now I'm...

DAVIES: On Monday, we'll hear from the star of the film, Anthony Ramos, who's also one of the stars of the current HBO series "In Treatment" and was in the original cast of "Hamilton." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) Damn, this is nice. I really like what they done with the lights. Sold the hot club in Washington Heights. You might be right. This music's tight. Yo, did I mention that you look great...

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.