At the Movies with Alan Gekko: In the Heights with Special Guest Reviewer Chelsea Maxwell

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Musical Drama/Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Noah Catala, Mateo Gómez, Marc Anthony, Christopher Jackson, Seth Stewart, Javier Muñoz, Mandy Gonzalez, Patrick Page, Ariana Greenblatt, Ariana S. Gomez/ Runtime: 143 minutes

We think it is safe to say that ever since the revolutionary (pun intended) musical Hamilton was able to become both a runaway success on both the stages of Broadway and through its time on streaming giant Disney+ as well as a pop culture phenomenon to the point that you can literally find Hamilton-themed merchandise at the Independence Hall gift shop (a fact that one of us can in fact verify), we think it is reasonably safe to say that the various studios in the land of movie magic have been over the moon in their eagerness to snatch up any chunk of iconic auteur Lin Manuel-Miranda’s work that the rights to haven’t already been scooped up to. With that in mind, we think it should be said that the cinematic take of Manuel’s other musical In the Heights is a brilliant example of one such cinematic endeavor that has most assuredly been aided immensely by Miranda’s career shooting straight into the stratosphere since it was only able to have serious ground broken in in the aftermath of Hamilton taking the world by storm. Yet even though a solid 10 years has come and gone in the interim, this is one case where time has worked some truly wonderful magic. Indeed not only is this one of the best cinematic musicals we have seen in quite some time, but the magic done on this by film helmer Jon M. Chu, an astoundingly talented crew behind the scenes, and an incredibly gifted cast in front of the camera have given us one of the best movies of the year 2021 and a movie that honestly the world definitely needs now more than perhaps ever before.

The plot is as follows: In the Heights focuses its narrative on a slice of time consisting of a few days in a community within New York City known as Washington Heights where a decent and upstanding bodega owner by the name of Usnavi works his fingers literally to the bone in the hope that he can save up enough money in order to get a ticket back home to the Dominican Republic since he has dreams of going back and reopening the old bar along the beach that his dear ol’ dad used to own/operate before moving the family to NYC. We also get introduced to several other characters as well including Usnavi’s friend Benny who thinks he’s all that and who used to have a thing with a girl in the neighborhood before ending it due to not wanting to hold her back when she went off to school and who works with the girl’s father at his business, Nina who was the girl previously described and who has now returned home from school for the summer though not without an internal conflict or 2 running through her mind, Usnavi’s crush Vanessa who, despite her current place of employment at the local salon, desires more than anything to move uptown and become a fashion designer, “Abuela” Claudia who is the neighborhood matriarch of sorts to say nothing of the de facto glue that holds the community together through times good and bad, Usnavi’s cousin Sonny who works for him at the bodega and who has recently taken up protesting in DACA rallies, and Nina’s father Kevin who genuinely loves his daughter despite his stern demeanor at times and simply wants her to make it in life in ways her mother and he could never have thought possible for themselves. Together these people and others in their community will try their best to make their dreams a reality all whilst weaving their way through various ups and downs including a heatwave-induced blackout that brings tragic consequences, the encroachment of gentrification heading their way, and a mystery lottery ticket that could be the thing to change all of their lives forever in one way or another….

Now very much in the same vein as that other stage play by Miranda that you may or may not know called Hamilton, In the Heights is a beautiful cultural ode to hard working immigrants and the people in their lives as they aim each and every day to both make their dreams come true and to get their chance to change the world. Indeed filled to the brim with both an addictive energy and sense of liveliness that is second to none, this take on the story has quite a few musical numbers that, following a year of no live concerts whatsoever, will literally have you close to dancing in the theater (though if you decide to we promise no judgement whatsoever). Not only that, but by sifting through a well-chosen group of beautiful core thematic concepts, the creative minds behind this film have also done a wonderful job at showing the indomitable powers of community, friendship, love, and pride through the prism of a truly gripping and powerful story. Yet although the film, including credits, is one that comes close to hitting the 2 and a half hour mark, you only feel how long this movie is towards the end due to the significant cast of characters and their arcs in this that collide and transform as the film goes on, but this honestly isn’t a detriment to the film in a way that it could otherwise have been. Now you should know: there are a few moments in this narrative that have been….altered I guess you could say from how they went down in the original telling, but this is nothing to worry about too much. Not only because cinema always makes changes when adapting something to the big screen, but because 98% of the core narrative and 100% of the heart and soul of the musical is still intact thus making this by and large a wonderfully faithful adaptation.

Now the cast in this is all absolutely fantastic. Indeed this starts with Anthony Ramos, Manuel-Miranda’s son in the musical Hamilton, who is dynamite and then some as the immensely charming and likable Usnavi and gives a performance that easily should function as a wonderful calling card for future productions to sign this kid up because he truly is a star in the making. I mean he can sing, he can dance, he can make you laugh, he can make you cheer, he can make you cry, and boy does he do that and so much more. We also really enjoyed the work done in this by Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre from 2015’s NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton) in the role of Benny. Yes he might start out a little bit smarmy and snarky if not the typical main “bro” to the main character that you’d see in other films, but as the movie goes along you really get to see that there is a genuinely decent guy in here. A guy who not only cares about his friends, but also his boss and his boss’ daughter and it shows because Hawkins and Leslie Grace as Nina have wonderful chemistry in their scenes together. The same can also be said to some degree for Melissa Barrera as Usnavi’s crush Vanessa. Indeed the first few times you meet her in the film she seems to be slightly aloof and enigmatic, but that’s because we are seeing her from the perspective of Usnavi who doesn’t really know her that well. Yet the moment the movie really starts letting her be her own character and the wall she has put up starts coming down a little bit, we get a performance from Barrera that is genuinely just as magical and emotional as the rest of the film. It was also a nice treat to see Jimmy Smits show up as Nina’s dad and Benny’s boss Kevin. Yes he has moments where he is a little bit of a hardnose, but Smits does a great job at making this guy not only a great guy, but someone who genuinely loves his daughter and his community and just wants the best for them. Also worth keeping an eye out for is Lin Manuel himself who comes into the film every now and then in an amusing extended cameo of sorts as the neighborhood Piragua Guy. Out of everyone though, the star that shines perhaps the brightest would be Olga Merediz as neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia. Indeed not only does she get a phenomenal musical number, but she gives a performance that is delightfully warm, decent, kind, and just grandmotherly in the best way and it would not be a surprise in the slightest to see her nab at least a nod for Best Supporting Actress.

On the other side of the camera, we are able to see that the magic is able to extend there as well as film helmer Chu is able to do a beautiful job of showcasing the lively and energetic atmosphere of this neighborhood complete with an abundance of color as well as vibrant and energized to the max musical numbers all to the beat of Miranda’s trademark mix of hip hop, rap and salsa. Yet even with that in mind, there are several standout moments to consider including the phenomenal and rousing opening number “In the Heights”, the local swimming pool-set “96,000” which the size and scale of are simply astonishing courtesy of both the perfectly timed cast and the camera work that is just plain out of this world to the point that it really does feel like an old school musical number updated for today’s movie going audience, and the beautiful  “When the Sun Goes Down” which operates as a beautifully shot proclamation of love both to New York City and to the couple of Benny and Nina.

All in all we think it is safe to say that the year 2021 was, in the aftermath of how tragic and chaotic the previous year was, going to be viewed as the time for both your friendly neighborhood movie theater as well as all the studios in the land of movie magic both big, small, and Disney to “gently prod” at movie goers worldwide to try and brave going back to theaters in order to both eat overpriced popcorn and to see movies on the big screen again. Thankfully, when the slice of cinematic pie is something like the film adaptation of In the Heights and less like 2021’s Tom and Jerry we can honestly say that gentle prod is one that is more appreciated than usual. This is because every single component of film helmer Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ truly heartwarming tribute to both the dreams and the satisfaction in being who we are as people is, pardon the pun, a pitch perfect movie going experience. Indeed this slice of cinematic pie might be ginormous in regards to its outlook from a visual perspective, but it also delightedly never once loses sight of the wonderful cast of characters that make up this locale whilst also constructing both its narrative and its musical numbers around a community that is honored to be who they are and has the heart and soul to prove it. In other words: this is a film that views itself and the people who are part of its world in the same vein as the people who view it: with pride, with warmth, and a delightful dollop of comedy to boot. Suffice it to say that a cinematic dream in the vein of this one, be it larger than life or down to earth, deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Not just because it’s an amazing movie, but because it’s an amazing and truly beautiful achievement period. On a scale of 1-5 we give In the Heights a solid 4.5 out of 5.