HOLLYWOOD—I tell people this time and time again, I’m not the biggest fan of musicals. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the notion of people just having a conversation and bursting out in song and dance. However, that is NOT my only grip it’s the fact that so many musicals have great song and dance numbers, but terrible narrative.
Well it looks like things are changing thanks to Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda and his big-screen version of his hit “In the Heights.” This movie was such a ton of fun to watch, let me rephrase that: this musical was such a ton of fun to watch. The songs are catchy as hell, the dance sequences are well choreographed and that is a fine testament to director Jon M. Chu. It feels easy and the transition from typical narrative to song and dance just works seamlessly in my opinion. The music and the concept is the brainchild of “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who makes catchy tunes and music a vital element of the narrative.
It does not feel forced, contrived or just awkward and that might be the result of some of the musical stars particularly the female leads in my opinion Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and Nina (Leslie Grace). I know what people are going to say, that Anthony Ramos (Usnavi) is the star and he is. The tale of Washington Heights and that unique neighborhood is told from his perspective and Ramos manages to push the pace of the narrative of the movie as he shares a story with several children about his upbringing.
My only gripe would be at times, I was slightly bored, so when Vanessa or Nina appeared on the screen it delivered a spark and that spark immediately regained my attention and held it. I mean that dance sequence inside the hair/beauty salon is incredible. It is fun, sassy, wild and just hilarious. People you need to watch out for Melissa Barrera, that woman is a star in the making people. She brings so much heart and fire to Vanessa, who has a dream of making it as a fashion designer, and picks up scraps to deliver her a bit of creation. Her drive to escape Washington Heights also keeps her grounded by the community that has her back.
The same sentiment can be echoed for Nina, who is the one person in region who has escaped with an opportunity to attend Stanford. Everyone in the community, including her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) is ecstatic that she has the potential to do something great with her life. However, Nina is not happy at Stanford and she has an inner battle of chasing a dream everyone wants her to accomplish versus doing what makes her happy. It is a haunting dichotomy that I think many people can connect with especially kids who feel that pressure to achieve a higher education something their parents didn’t accomplish.
Both Nina and Vanessa have suitors, Usnavi and Benny (Corey Hawkins). Usnavi has a huge crush on Vanessa, but cannot get the courage to ask Daniella out. That’s where his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who is another standout in the flick who brings a level of heart as an undocumented immigrant in America who is fighting to hopefully gain legal status. Benny doesn’t have a crush on Nina, the two dated and have a past and their chemistry is great people. Benny works at the taxi company owned by Nina’s father, Kevin. I would have loved to see Benny a bit more in the movie, because his portrayer delivers charisma to the character on the screen and as I noted again that chemistry between Grace and Hawkins is phenomenal. Way stronger than Ramos and Barrera. Usnavi operates the Bodega (neighborhood store) for the community and has dreams of reviving his late father’s business in the Dominican Republic that is up for sale.
It is NOT just about these characters in Washington Heights, but issues of having dreams, gentrification of communities, race, immigration, undocumented immigrants, work, family and the family element brings so much heart to the flick. I mean I felt part of the Washington Heights community watching this musical. It was a great experience to have people and just opens your eyes to learn more about other cultures. A big heart of that family element is a result of Abuela (Olga Merediz), who keeps her family and those in her community in her orbit people.
Other strong players in the flick include Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco and you even have appearances by Marc Anthony and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. “In the Heights” doesn’t just work because of the music and dance numbers, it’s a direct result of the amount of heart this flick brings to the audience. It is palpable, it’s invigorating and inspiration. I was surprised how much fun I had watching this movie from start to finish.