“In the Heights”- Movie Review

When I first started blogging about movies and junk, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t fall behind the bandwagon. The world moves a mile a second nowadays, and year after year I find myself struggling to keep up with popular fads, trends and topics of the present. So much content is made available to us at any given time that constantly trying to stay in tune with the cultural zeitgeist can get exhausting, at least for a self-paced person like myself.

I may have brought this up before, but I think it’s a relevant point to make now- I did not hop onto the Lin Manuel Miranda bandwagon until recently. I saw Hamilton for the first time last year through Disney+. I loved it in parts, especially the music, the choreography and the performances. As a whole, I thought it was good. I couldn’t fall head over heels for it like the diehard fans did (to be honest, my viewing experience was probably tainted by the dreaded over-hype spell) though I understood why the stage production had been so adored. And the facets I was most impressed with seemed like they would be carried over into the next musical feature Manuel Miranda was attached to, which captured my intrigue.

The feature in question is In the Heights, a silver screen adaptation of Miranda’s Tony-award-winning play of the same name. Directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, the Step Up movies), the film hovers a wide lens over the neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York, home to a diverse close-knit community of immigrants and Dreamers. Our guide through the streets of Washington Heights is Isnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young man who runs a bodega previously owned by his Dominican Republic parents and dreams of returning to his homeland some day. Usnavi leads us through a day in his life and in the lives of his friends and family, as they find love, face off against shared struggles, and celebrate who they are, where they hope to be, and where they come from.

man and woman hold hands in front of New York City bridge
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

After a pandemic-fueled year of constant death, fear and anxiety, movies like this function as a much needed- and appreciated- happy pill. I said it in my review for last year’s Bill & Ted Face the Music and I’ll repeat it here- as much as our current culture prefers stories be told with sharp edge and cynical realism, it’s nice, nay, it’s a relief, to have art that’s unabashedly optimistic. In the Heights is a celebration of life and hope. It touches on a few serious issues, such as the immigration crisis and the experiences of immigrant families, though tonally, it never delves too deep into the dramatic rabbit hole. It carries with it a kinetic energy that’s as infectious as it is entertaining. Every song has a memorable upbeat melody, and Manuel Miranda’s lyrics wisely convey the emotions of the characters.  The choreography is outstanding. Each musical number has its own identity. Director Jon M. Chu understands that if you’re going to have a movie musical, it’s best to go as big and creative as you can with it. The numbers occur in a variety of locations within the frame of Washington Heights- a simple mom-and-pop shop, a community pool, a nightclub, a balcony overlooking the neighborhood- and the choreography utilizes every corner, and the camera, every angle, possible to make these moments fun to watch.

So the film works from a visual and general entertainment standpoints. Check. Does it have a great cast? Check. Vibrant cinematography? Check. The narrative itself is where it falters, and even then it’s more of a subjective flaw than an objective flaw. The film’s plot is extremely thin. In fact, there’s barely a plot at all. The film’s sole driving force is the music. When the narrative hits a lull, it’s the music that reinvigorates the pace and draws you back into the action. So if you’re the type of moviegoer who prefers a solid, overarching plot, you may not be into this as much as, say, Hamilton. Though between good music and likeable characters, I’d argue there’s enough there to keep you hooked.

To put it simply, In the Heights is a fun sit. I watched it from the comfort of my own home, which was nice. But truth be told, I kind of wish I’d gone to see it in the theater. The music and visuals are worth seeing on the big screen. Even on the small screen, the good stuff is still so good. If you haven’t gotten the chance to see it yet, do it. Just sit back, relax, and let the music take you.

Cosmic Grade- 3.5/5 Stars

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