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Josh Reviews In the Heights

I watched In the Heights on HBO Max and I loved it!  The film was directed by John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), based on the musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I’ve never seen the musical on stage, and I have been very excited to see this film version ever since it was announced.  It did not disappoint!

In the Heights follows a momentous handful of days in the lives of many denizens, young and old, of the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City.  Anthony Ramos, who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, steps into the starring role here as Usnavi de la Vega, a young man dreaming of returning to the spot in the Dominican Republic from where his family originated.  I loved Mr. Ramos in Hamilton, of course, but he blew me away with his fantastic work as the lead here.  Mr. Ramos effortlessly carries the audience through the story of the film.  He’s a remarkably engaging performer, and I immediately connected with Usnavi’s “who am I?” dilemma.

Shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Ramos stand two fantastic young women.  Melissa Barrera plays Vanessa, who works in the neighborhood salon but dreams of becoming a designer on her own.  It’s immediately clear that Usnavi has a huge crush on Vanessa; with a little help from young Sonny, Usnavi asks Vanessa out on a date.  But how can they start a relationship when Usnavi is planning on leaving the country?  Leslie Grace plays Nina Rosario; seen as a neighborhood success story, Nina is returning after her first semester at Stamford University, but Nina is embarrassed to admit she felt like an outsider at Stamford and doesn’t want to go back.  Both women turn in star-making performances here.  That’s something of a misnomer, actually, since both women have already had lengthy careers.  But I expect/hope that their work in this film will take them to new heights.  Both Ms. Barrera and Ms. Grace are fantastic singers and dancers, but more importantly they both imbue their characters with tremendous soul and depth.

Those three characters form the central trio of the film, but one of my favorite aspects of In the Heights was how large and well-developed the main ensemble was.  I love that the film explores the stories of many different people within the neighborhood, at different stages of their lives.  Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, Kong: Skull Island) is fantastic as Usnavi’s best friend Benny, who was in a relationship with Nina before she left town to go to school.  Mr. Hawkins has a gorgeous singing voice, and I really enjoyed his character.  Olga Merediz is fantastic as Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood matriarch.  Her spotlight song, “Paciencia y Fe”, in which she looks back at her immigrant experience, is a showstopper and a highlight of the film for me.  The great Jimmy Smith is, as always, fantastic as Nina’s father Kevin Rosario, who is willing to sell his beloved taxi company business if it will ensure that he can pay for Nina’s college tuition.  Daphne Rubin-Vega is very memorable as Daniela, owner of the neighborhood beauty salon; to the dismay of many, she is closing her salon and moving to the Bronx, due to the rising cost of rent in the Heights.  Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Dascha Polanco (Orange is the New Black) are a riot as Carla and Cuca, who work with Daniela in her salon.  I absolutely adored both of these characters, and wish we’d gotten to see more of them!  (I was particularly taken with Ms. Beatriz, playing an extremely different character than Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Rosa.  Ms. Beatriz found a way to steal every shot she was in.  I want to rewatch this film and just focus on watching her very funny work around the edges of the film…)  Also very funny is Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, the teenager who works in Usnavi’s bodega.  And of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda makes the most of every moment he’s on screen as Piragüero, the Piragua Guy.

I’m far from the world’s biggest fan of musicals, but I thought the music of In the Heights was fantastic; compelling and catchy.  After having lived with the music of Hamilton for so many years, it was a pleasure to discover this world of new music that bore Mr. Miranda’s distinct musical style.  There’s also a lot of wonderful dance choreography in the film.  My favorite sequences were at the neighborhood pool in the song “96,000”, and the joyous neighborhood celebration in “Carnaval del Barrio”.  I also really dug the CGI-enhanced dancing-on-the-walls sequence between Benny and Nina in “When the Sun Goes Down”.

The film adaptation of In the Heights has taken some heat, with some vocal critics feeling that the film did not have nearly enough visibly dark-skinned Afro Latinx characters.  Mr. Miranda issued an apology, as did Anthony Ramos.  I’m reluctant to wade into this debate, myself, as I don’t think that’s my place.  I will comment that I think every step forward we make as a society to be inclusive of people who have felt marginalized or un-represented is a win, and I applaud those who do the hard work of pushing us forward as Americans in those areas.  If the filmmakers could have done better in incorporating dark-skinned Afro Latinex actors into the project, that’s useful to note and hopefully do better at next time.  At the same time, I think one enters treacherous waters if one expects any one piece of art (be that a movie or a song or a painting) to be 100% everything for everybody.  I think it’s OK for a filmmaker to tell a story about one type of character (whatever their skin color) while another filmmaker can tell a story about another type of character.  I think it’s OK for filmmakers to hire the best actors/singers/performers they can without skin color necessarily being the only priority.  And I think it would be a shame if all that In the Heights accomplished — a film created by an incredible array of talented people of color, telling the stories of people of color whose stories are not often told — was brushed aside because of the areas of representation in which it fell short.  (As a small example, here’s Melissa Barrera gushing over the many aspects of Latinx culture that In the Heights can get people to fall in love with.)

Personally, I found the film a delight from start to finish.  I loved this glimpse into the specific world of this neighborhood and its people, in all their vibrancy.  I loved the characters, and I loved the music.  I can’t wait to find time to watch this film again.

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