The other day, Herself and I decided to beat the sweltering New York heat by going to see (in an air-conditioned theater!) a movie about New York over three days during an even greater heatwave – so hot, in fact, that the city loses power.
I remember the Northeast blackout of 2003. Before cellphone service was overwhelmed by everybody from Cincinnati to Montreal trying to call home, my wife and I managed to connect and meet on Avenue of the Americas, the entire expanse of which – from Central Park to Greenwich Village – was a river of people flooding out of the skyscrapers. It was fun. There was a kind of festival quality about it.
But it was not as enjoyable as director Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights, based on the 2005 stage play written by Quiara Alegría Hudes with music and lyrics by (and I do not hesitate to call him “the great”) Lin-Manuel Miranda – he of Hamilton fame. The film’s choreographer is Christopher Scott.
I suffered through Mr. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians (2018), which I did not enjoy, but In the Heights shows him as competent with the musical format as any director since Robert Wise, whose West Side Story (1961) took that Broadway sensation to new heights.
And that earlier movie certainly comes to mind when you see In the Heights. Wise filmed much of West Side Story on Manhattan’s West Side, just ahead of the demolition of a large swath of it in the West 60s to make way for the Lincoln Center project. In the Heights was filmed in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, in and around the intersection of 175th Street and Audubon Avenue, and features occasional glimpses of the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River.
This is not, however, another retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. We’ll see that again in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, which will premiere at Christmastime. I can’t help wondering if Chu, Hudes, Miranda, and company haven’t stolen Mr. Spielberg’s thunder and will win some of the Oscars he might have.
The story: A young Dominican-immigrant bodega owner named Usnavi (played by Anthony Ramos) has “little dreams” (sueñitos) of returning to the island of his birth and reopening the bar on a beautiful beach that his father once ran. In this regard, Navi’s a bit like George Bailey in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: a dreamer who loves his town and its people but wants to escape.
So does his friend, the brilliant Nina (Leslie Grace), who is already on her way out, having spent a year at Stanford University. Navi is in love with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who also wants out – her dream is to succeed in the fashion world.
At the center of Washington Heights is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), an aging Cuban Catholic whose motto is paciencia y fe – patience and faith. Catholicism, surely the faith of many if not most of the Latin residents of Washington Heights, is otherwise mostly missing from the film. Nobody goes to Mass; there are no priests. An unfortunate lapse. But not a reason to “cancel” the film.
That prosaic description will not prepare you for the energy and creative brilliance of In the Heights.
To be sure, the story is partly about power and not having it. And not just electrical power. In one scene, there is a DREAMERs rally – the community coming together to urge the immigration reforms that will allow a path to full citizenship for undocumented “aliens.” But, trust me, it’s handled as it should be: in the context of a young man, Navi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who is as ambitious, i.e. American, as everybody else.
Mr. Miranda’s sensibility and energy (in the film he appears in what’s almost a cameo) are what make the film soar. I don’t wish to take anything away from Mr. Chu or Ms. Hudes or Mr. Scott, but it’s Miranda’s music and, yes, “rap” lyrics (as in Hamilton), that have you swaying in your seat or tearing up – and I say that as 73-year-old white guy. My friend Richard Brookhiser, author of Alexander Hamilton, American, wrote of Miranda’s Hamilton that “contemporary bells and whistles fit the 200-year-old story amazingly well.” The conceit of casting black and Latino actors in Hamilton, which Rick described as “incongruous on its face,” nonetheless “provokes. . .worthwhile thought.”
Similarly, In the Heights gave me some worthwhile thoughts about the immigration issue. I remain a believer, as I have written here, that there’s nothing un-Christian about the requirement of acquiring a visa to enter the United States – or maintenance of border security. But In the Heights reminds us that those here without having followed legal procedures must have our love and support. My people came here from England in the 17th century; one of my wife’s grandfathers came from Russia in the 19th. Miranda’s roots are in Puerto Rico, Chu’s are Chinese, and Ms. Hudes has Puerto Rican and Jewish roots. Few of us came across the land bridge from Asia. The melting pot is now and should always be our pride and joy.
Of course, in the current hothouse climate of “race” relations, the film has been attacked by “anti-colorism” activists. The cast includes Afro–Latin actors, but the anti-colorists say there aren’t enough of them and that those who do appear aren’t dark enough. After all, they claim, in Washington Heights most Latinos are dark-skinned. Maybe so. But this isn’t a documentary.
In the Heights contains marvelous performances, best in the musical and dance numbers, most notably in “96,000,” which was shot in a city pool and would make Esther Williams proud. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensational music and lyrics are perfectly matched by Christopher Scott’s amazing choreography, Alice Brooks’ vivid cinematography, and, of course, John Chu’s direction (in collaboration with editor Myron Kerstein): the kind of collaborative effort that sometimes elevates moviemaking to the pinnacle of the arts – as it mostly does here.
In the Heights is rated PG-13, for profanity (presumably) and (possibly) for several shots of a contortionist dislocating his shoulder in that scene in the pool. The fine cast also includes veterans Jimmy Smits, Marc Anthony, and dozens of other fine actors (especially Corey Hawkins), singers, and dancers, young and old.