colorful frosting on a vanilla cake
Quiara Alegría Hudes (screenplay, based on the musical by Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda), Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alex Lacamoire, and Bill Sherman (music), Jon M. Chu (director) In the Heights / 2021
Quiara Alegría Hudes’ and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights is a love story to not only to the Washington Heights section of New York City, but to the fictional community that exists there. I’m willing to believe in their fictional love-fest even if in similar heavily Hispanic areas of Miami, for example, I’ve long heard that there is a great deal of tension between the various Spanish-language communities of not only emigrants from each of the Caribbean countries (Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominion Republic are featured in In the Heights) but between those of Central and South American countries. If nothing else, it’s certainly a wonderful exemplar of how these diverse cultures might come together in this particular corner of the US, many of them apparently raised, after their own immigrant parents had worked themselves to death, by a Cuban neighbor Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz)—to whom this film and former theater musical is, also with deep love, dedicated.
In Jon M. Chu’s film version, moreover, In the Heights is also a love song to cinema musicals, specifically referencing other musicals and their creators such as Busby Berkeley in the aerial shots of the swimming pool dance-a-thon to winning the lottery ("96,000"), Fred Astaire’s terpsichorean scaling of the hotel room walls in The Royal Wedding ("When the Sun Goes Down"), Jerome Robbins’ memorable choreography for the Shark gang women in West Side Story ("No Me Diga"), and variations of numerous club dance films such as John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever, Randal Kleiser’s Grease, and Craig Brewer’s Footloose ("The Club" and "Carnaval del Barrio"). That is not to say that Christopher Scott’s choreography offers nothing original, but just to express the obvious: the dancing in this film is willingly and joyfully linked to its predecessors.
Finally, this film is a “torch song” about and dedicated to its Hispanic-heritage dreamers. What used to be described as “the American Dream” is here transformed into personal aspirations that don’t always accord with the previous generations’ notions of complete assimilation and endless hard work at menial jobs. The endless blockades to these dreams—many such as racism, xenophobia, sexism, and self-deception having been faced by all generations, while others such as gentrification, ageism, and Trumpism with its governmental walls constructed by that presidency are new—are approached differently by this younger, smarter, and more self-assured generation.
Some of their community such as Nina (Ariana Greenblatt), now a student at Stanford University just returned to the community presumably for summer vacation, seem to have achieved their dreams already. We soon find, however, that Nina has returned seemingly for good; unable to cope with the new forms of prejudice and racist behavior she has encountered in her new world, along with own longing for the community in which she grew up she, has come back to stay. She is also in love with Benny (Corey Hawkins) who works as a dispatcher for her father’s fleet of taxis, another unstated reason for her return.
Hairdresser Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) secretly designs clothes with bits of discarded fabric she steals from garbage bins from downtown clothes-makers, and wants nothing more than to rent her own display space in downtown New York. Having saved up enough money to put down a payment on the space she belts out her belief "It Won't Be Long Now" to the neighborhood bodega owner, Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who is too shy to admit his love for her. She must face down a system which demands a credit check, without a financial history to be checked.
Her employer Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) must move her thriving hairdressing business to the Concourse in the Bronx because of the increasing rent hike she currently faces.
Unlike the rest, Usnavi (named by his mother for the first boat she spotted as they moved toward Ellis Island, one belonging to the US Navy), is very much at the center of this active community as the purveyor of the bodega where they all get their morning coffee and shop for snacks and lunch; but his dream, unlike any notion contained in “the American Dream” is simply to return to and restore his family’s beachside stand in the Dominican Republic, which he has discovered from a lawyer and family friend is still available despite being somewhat destroyed in a hurricane.
Besides the forces that seem to rise up as challenges to these young dreamers, fate itself seems, at times to be against them, as they first experience a complete electrical blackout of the entire upper West Side for several days; at the same time they suffer the death of Abuela, whose story is somewhat revealed in her dying dirge to herself ("Paciencia y Fe").
Yet almost miraculously, by helping one another, these people not only survive but move closer to their dreams, Nina finally deciding that she should return to the university to learn better how help her own people reach their dreams, Vanessa obtaining her new space when, after Navi finds her application in the trash, he asks Daniela to sign for her, and Sonny determining to challenge the immigration system with the help of Navi’s lawyer friend and the $96,000 Navi discovers has been left for him by Abuela in the form of the unreported lottery ticket she bought at the bodega.
By film’s end, even the nostalgia-consumed Navi realizes he has been mistaken in his dream and that his real happiness may exist in remaining where he is, his bodega serving a double purpose as a small grocery shop and a showroom for his now wife Vanessa.
The story he tells—the narrational frame of Chu’s film—is the tale he tells is little daughter and her friends, who, as the film ends, join all their neighbors who cool themselves off, as New York children have now for centuries, in the open fire hydrants.
With such a lot of love behind this motion picture, one would have to be an ogre, perhaps even a racist, it might appear, to find anything to dislike about In the Heights. And a large number of the critics, also simply appreciative that they could now return to the movie theater to watch a good film on a large screen (my husband Howard and I chose it as our first movie-theater outing in more than a year and a half) found little at fault with Chu’s movie. The New York Times’ A. O. Scott wrote: “ It’s a great party — replete with fireworks, dance floor blowouts, kisses, tears, loud arguments, more kisses and more tears.” The Los Angeles Times critic Jason Chang summarized: “At nearly two-and-a-half hours and with a terrific ensemble of actors singing, rapping, dancing and practically bursting out of the frame, In the Heights is a brash and invigorating entertainment, a movie of tender, delicate moments that nonetheless revels unabashedly in its own size and scale.” And writing for the Roger Ebert column Tomris Laffly almost shouted out:
“It’s here! Jubilant, unapologetically massive, and bursting with a cozy, melancholic sense of communal belonging, “In The Heights” is the biggest-screen-you-can-find Hollywood event that we the movie lovers have been craving since the early days of the pandemic, when the health crisis cut off one of our most cherished public lifelines. A dazzling New York movie that honors the diverse Latinx communities of Upper Manhattan like its boisterous source....this exuberant screen adaptation is ready to welcome you back into your neighborhood cinema with open arms, daring to light up that dark room in ways much bigger and brighter than you might remember.
I have asked this question several times, but when will contemporary directors of film musicals get wise to the fact that to represent dance, you must show the entire body in motion for a period of time without the distraction of endless cuts, clips, swoops, and just plain flutters of the camera lens. We want to observe the dancer in the entire process of dance, which includes not only head, shoulders, and riving torsos, but midbody penises, vaginas, and asses, as well as legs and feet. Dance is about the body, not about gestures that point to bodies in motion. I am certain that every lovely dancer in this work was extraordinarily talented, but I would have liked to have been able to see them truly display that talent by focusing the camera on their movements for more than one instant of screen imaging.
Scott, after his praise I quote above, pointed out “The dynamic choreography, by Christopher Scott, is ill served by the editing and camera movements, which hack graceful and athletic motion into a hectic collage of faces and limbs.” Exuberance is all for the good, but I’d like to see the dance that fully expresses it.
As for narrative, let me just suggest that one might have thought that when Nina first went away to the university that she would have pondered, just for a moment, whether her education might serve some importance for her community, despite whatever bigotry stood in her way. I thought that in today’s college applications students were generally encouraged to write about how they were involved or imagined themselves in the future being involved with their home communities. Yet in this story it appears that it never crossed her mind until she returned to be prodded by her friends’ need. And even then, what particularly might she have in mind to help her in her desire to serve her community, one has to ask? What course of study is she planning other than meeting up with Benny in Palo Alto?
Usnavi never seems to imagine that the Dominican Republic to which he wants to return is purely an imaginary one, since he left the place as a child. And who might he have encountered on the pristine tropical beach other than wealthy tourists who would certainly care little about his existence except for the tropical drink he might serve up? Even his friends seem to ask some of these questions, but they never apparently reach his inner thoughts until the very last moment, when he is forced to witness the artistic talents of those he is about to leave behind. As Vanessa earlier expressed it, it is all “too late.” This hero seems to be so dense-headed that we wonder how he later finds the words to tell his daughter his own story.
Finally, we knew from the start that Daniela and her talented beauticians would do just fine in The Bronx. Even Sonny, with Biden now as president, may be able to attend college as a “Dreamer.” So much for those seemingly impossible odds this community had to face.
Well it was a lot fun while it lasted. And the Heights certainly does have a hum all its own. But I’m not sure I’ll remember the musical after a few weeks. Sorry folks. I so wanted this to be simply great.
Los Angeles, July 2, 2021
Reprinted in World Cinema Review (July 2021).