'In the Heights' Is a Worthy Culmination of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Vision Directed by Jon M. Chu
Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smits
Published May 21, 2021I'm not alone in wanting to speak up for 2010's Step Up 3D, but it might be strange to do so here, when director Jon M. Chu's career has taken him to much loftier heights. In recent years, he experienced a groundswell success with Crazy Rich Asians and has a musical breakout in the making with his new film, In the Heights. Watching his latest, however, brought to mind a scene from his second entry in the 2000s dance battle series, where a pair of characters' romance is kindled in a scene set to a Fred Astaire tune.
That was the early promise of Chu, a director excellent at capturing choreography, motion, and attitude and with a wider set of emotional tones than his peers within the dance film genre. It's a little heartening, then, to see that scene rhymed for an instant in In the Heights, as a character watches a younger version of herself from across the street, both movies with tracking shots moving across the fronts of row houses. You could layer the resonance of seeing Chu, past and present, right on top.
Here, Chu and his crew have more auspicious source material in the successful musical from phenom Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Broadway star upgraded to undeniable powerhouse with Hamilton later on, but the Tony Award-winning In the Heights is no mere precursor. It has specificity and vibrancy that's expressed and adapted wholly by Chu as director and Miranda as a producer — plus, the script is adapted by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who originally wrote the book for the stage version.
The ambitions of the characters is unmistakably Miranda, natural to a notorious striver like him. With Miranda having aged out of the lead role, Anthony Ramos comes in to play Usnavi, a bodega operator dreaming of going back to the Dominican Republic and building on his father's old property. In the meantime, he's caught in a web of familial and communal connections in the neighbourhood of Washington Heights. Among them is Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer with ambitions of moving up and out of the neighbourhood, maybe before Usnavi screws up the courage to ask her out.
Usnavi is egged on by his friend, Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher for a car service head-quartered across the way. In the midst of a sweltering summer, Benny has his own romantic question mark, as old flame Nina (Leslie Grace) returns from college to visit her father and Benny's boss (Jimmy Smits) and wrestle with his great expectations.
Among the personal dramas, their neighbourhood is threatening to change. Businesses are being squeezed out as gentrification pushes in. In a crew full of yearning for the future, possibilities threaten to fade away, forcing all of them to consider what they can do for their community, each other, and themselves.
Sections of the music are sung through, with masterful shifts and turns. If the filmmakers felt limited at any moment, it doesn't show — from the wide-ranging opening number, a lengthy work that's economical in introducing character and entertaining and humorous in its approach and tangents, In the Heights shows off refinement and ease with any number of approaches. Fast-paced montage, tremendous group choreo, and a camera actively introducing characters are all used sharply.
Divorced from anything else, one could easily appreciate In the Heights for just its variety. Sequences call on musical history, from touches of animation to the kaleidoscopic vision of Busby Berkeley to Chu's own dance club scenes. (I felt a touch of Evil Dead 2 in a salon scene as a different cinematic parallel, but maybe I'm stretching there.) This feast for the senses feels like the kind of earnest, full-hearted spectacle that hasn't been realized this well in some time, all the more resonant as it's completely connected to character.
This movie is set in a real neighbourhood and feels grounded to those real spaces. Chu and cinematographer Alice Brooks don't shy away from lighting designed to feel natural to its location, showing off lighting sources in scenes and rarely shying away from a little lens flair. The location scouting is on point, too, and the results got to me. Watching a scene that uses a slightly slanted bench had me feeling like Kevin Feige talking about seeing natural light for the first time in The Eternals.
The characters are also expressing themselves in fantasy, bending their surroundings to reflect their state of mind. Usnavi might stay the most grounded throughout, in keeping with Ramos' great humility, being able to laugh at himself convingly and charmingly in song. Vanessa and Nina both experience moments of their world unfolding in tremendous ways to reflect their tumult.
One of the great examples, though, comes with actress Olga Merediz, one of the holdovers from the Broadway cast. As Abuela Claudia, grandmother to the neighbourhood, she has a song that's smartly adapted from the original. In a dream-like setting, she's surrounded by figures acting out her thoughts and memories, and amidst the shifting setting and cinematic cartwheels, Merediz gives a wrenching performance.
There's so much to appreciate in the intersection of talents in In the Heights: the light yet sincere performances, the varied and catchy collection of songs, a musical filmmaking approach novel for its moment. In some cases, it's also a worthy culmination — of both Chu's career and for Miranda's beloved musical — with hope for more in the future.
In the Heights comes out in theatres and on VOD on June 10. (Warner Bros.)