At the very moment my screen went dark at the end of director Jon Chu’s latest feature, I knew. I knew waiting another year was more than worth it. It was essential, necessary. Not just because of the pandemic temporarily derailing the content engine of a steady release schedule. It’s most importantly a reminder of why the communal aspect of film, namely the musical genre remains as valuable as any precious metal. In the Heights is that welcome reminder, a story only a large screen can contain. Granted, it works fine on a small screen, where I viewed it. But its energy, its sense of community, its level of joy and divinity, all those elements require a captive audience. Much like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original 2008 musical, the connectivity it invokes couldn’t be reached the same way at home versus on a hard-top multiplex.
Chu ropes viewers in on the first two of those three ideas as sweeping wide shots of Manhattan transfer to a smaller, focused approach, on the meager yet enigmatic, Latino-dominant neighborhood of Washington Heights. A realm thriving best when the streets come alive with warm summer weather, where smooth-talking hustlers lead the game. Enter the suave Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), humbly searching for his “sueñito”, his little dream. Owning a bodega in the heart of the neighborhood, he’s at least partway toward achieving his goal of emigrating back to the Dominican Republic, closer to family, slowing down away from the big city. Like every good musical, the protagonist tends to share a common, like-minded goal with others, either close friends or disapproving authority figures.
Telling his story in future tense to a few kids, Usnavi plays the cock-eyed optimist ringleader, exploring his own sense of self amid a blossoming relationship with aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Her job at the local nail salon is placed under the microscope with the rent being raised, and boss Daniela (an effervescent Daphne Rubin-Vega) aiming to move out. Vanessa’s got her future to look out for, so does Usnavi’s, thus builds their “run away with me” type tryst. Often more interesting to see is the mini-arc between taxi dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) and college student Nina (Leslie Grace). He wants an increased role at work, she’s unsure how to tell her public servant father Kevin (a warmly delightful Jimmy Smits) she doesn’t want to go back to Stamford in the fall.
Nothing in this tale ever reaches Romeo-and-Juliet level tragedy in its relationships. Shouldn’t be a major secret Hamilton aimed deeper on the tragedy amid its true-life rigors. Here, the character strengths are rather vanilla, leaving the scenarios, and their physicality, to speak for themselves. Emulating what I could only imagine having been a wild ride on stage that couldn’t exactly rival the frenetic delirium of its more successful brethren comes just too easy for Chu, whose eye for color had not been lost on him in the wake of the adventurous Crazy Rich Asians. And whose spirit for dance (and music to a lesser extent) as a plot device explodes loudly on the screen after at least five years of dormancy. Twice that if we’re counting his involvement in the Step Up franchise, and each segment of that series was always like a Fast and Furious entry, with added flexibility.
Having the chance to work from Miranda’s libretto, and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s screenplay, all gives Chu the open invite to be as grounded as one can in a zip code with many stories. It manages to stay as such, save for the musical numbers themselves, at least two of them (the swimming pool and brick building tightrope sequences) would make the collective jaws of Busby Berkeley, Gene Kelly, and Arthur Freed drop at the first chord. Plenty of challenges abound for Chu’s longtime choreographer Christopher Scott, editor Myron Kerstein, and stunt coordinator Scott Burik (The Greatest Showman), making magic out of slightly familiar territory.
Once a certain wattage is found, Chu latches on allowing his tale to breathe as a proper movie musical should. Be prepared, it is a long one, a lyrical five-course meal at nearly two and a half hours. Some stand-out concepts gravitate in that tempered middle ground between propelling the story and slowing it down. Such as Lin appearing momentarily as a piragua salesman, complete, with a random bonus Hamilton alum cameo and a dedicated post-credits scene that’s more than warranted. Or those occasions wherein Usnavi hits a figurative pause button to cut down the tension. Or a powerful moment at the halfway mark where the brakes are tapped to give neighborhood granny Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, in an encore of her Tony-winning role) a heart-stopping moment of remembrance.
Under lesser genre circumstances, these breaks for oxygen would probably not fly. Here, they work to the film’s rhythmic advantage, its complex time signature running fervently from start to finish. Brief passing moments aside where it appeared like the hands were off the wheel, it was clear Chu knew just what he was doing. After Crazy Rich, he proved he’s no fluke. He treats Lin’s work with care, giving it his own developing style, and leaving a wide-open runway for his cast of primarily stage veterans to run amok in a controlled state.
Ramos is a genuine star in the making. Having made a name for himself in the cast of Hamilton, he evolves once more to take on a role Lin had made famous once before on stage. Here he’s allowed the open space to own Usnavi on screen and doesn’t waste the chance. Ditto for both Grace and Barrera, equal parts steadfast and grounded, playing the lawful neutral card and avoiding any cinematic stereotyping seen with female Latino characters in cinema past. Please do not overlook Brooklyn 99 alum, Stephanie Beatriz, as one of the minor players working inside the salon; major opportunity for her range to branch out beyond meager television comedy.
It will always be a tough thing to get the mood and pacing of a complex musical just right if it’s not explicitly a performance of the stage equivalent. But somehow Jon Chu made it all work, reminding us Miranda could probably do no wrong. In the Heights pulls off the often impossible, bringing back the movie musical at a time where its purpose to bring audiences together for a worthwhile escape. It’s somewhat cliche to throw this phrase in, but given its present timing, as we approach an increasingly normal summer like we once knew, nature is very much healing. Cinema’s ability to bring communities together, and give small community stories a voice and image, is also healing. With all the optimism one could infuse into such a broad tale of romance and initiative, it’s no wonder this film could be 2021’s best to this point. A musical rooted in the real world but embracing its slightly alternate reality and setting the stage for others to follow this year. We’ve been waiting a while, for a moment, or a year, to wander off and move our feet to a certain beat. Finally, we have it. (A; 4.5/5 Horns Up!)
In the Heights is currently playing in theaters, and at home on HBO Max; do stay after the credits; rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive references; 143 minutes.