Tuesday, September 21, 2021

REVIEW: In The Heights

Long before "Hamilton" become a Broadway phenomenon, multi-hyphenate Lin-Manuel Miranda began his theater career with a contemporary musical by the name of "In the Heights". That production went on to win the Tony for Best Musical and the rest, as they say, is history. Fast forward to 2021 and that debut musical is now a splashy feature film directed by Jon M. Chu and written by Quiara Alegría Hudes. But although Miranda takes a more backseat role in this adaptation, his imprint is all over this rousing story about Latin pride.

"In the Heights" derives its title from the neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. It is home to a primarily Dominican population, including Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), the owner of a local bodega. Like many in his community, Usnavi longs for a better life. But while others have their eyes set on the American Dream, he is determined to return to his native Dominican Republic and revive his father's seaside business. As the time draws near, Usnavi enjoys an eventful summer, filled with romance, dancing, precious moments with family and friends and a blackout for good measure. At the end of it all, Usnavi comes to realize the immeasurable value of what he would be leaving behind.

Indeed, the vibrancy of the Washington Heights community shines through in "In The Heights" as Chu delivers the best of both worlds (i.e. theater and film). From a visual perspective, the film features radiant cinematography enlivened by immersive camerawork that weaves in, out and around the talented ensemble. Furthermore, visual effects wizardry is imaginatively used to express the inner desires of the various characters. Meanwhile, Miranda's trademark musicality is evident through catchy songs and inspired choreography that honors its Latin roots.

"In the Heights" is truly a festive experience, with Anthony Ramos leading the way with his innate star power. In fact, the entire ensemble is impressive, with each major character getting their time in the sun. Audiences will surely relish the warmth of Olga Merediz as the community's matriarch, Corey Hawkins' silky-smooth voice in the role of Benny and the indefatigable spirit of Daphne Rubin-Vega's Daniela. 

The film is more than just a big "carnaval del barrio" (as referenced in one show-stopping number) however. It also examines the struggles of Latin immigrants in achieving their potential, especially those who are undocumented. In doing so, "In The Heights' is ultimately a film about perspective, pitting its characters against each other in an ideological tug of war between those who see the metaphorical glass as half full or half empty. In the end, there's no denying that the filmmakers stand firmly on the side of optimism. And through their efforts and the entire creative team, "In the Heights" triumphs as the feel-good movie of the year so far.

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