One of the loveliest recurring motifs of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast is the subject of stage musicals, a topic that comes up fairly often – and when it does, you can start counting down to his confession: “When they start singing, I just cry. It’s so vulnerable.” He’s right, of course; it’s also vulnerable to admit that. But the more he talks about it, the more it seems like this is part of why the movie musical fell out of favor when it did: the late 1960s, when, yes, filmmakers (and audiences) renewed their hunger for realism, but also for cynicism. Sometimes we don’t like to feel vulnerable, or are uncomfortable in the presence of others’ vulnerability, so we shut it out.
In the Heights flies in the face of that resistance. It began on the stage, first off-Broadway and then on, with music and lyrics by a pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also played the leading role) and book by future Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegria Hudes, who also penned the screenplay adaptation. It is the story, we’re told at its outset, “of a block that was disappearing” in “Nueva York.” That block is in the uptown neighborhood of Washington Heights; the time is the period up to, during, and after a days-long, heat-prompted blackout.
Full disclosure: I spent the last eight years living in Washington Heights, and can firmly testify that the text is well-steeped in the details (you do, indeed, take the escalator if you get off at 181st). But more importantly, Hudes and Miranda, and the film’s director Jon M. Chu, hone in on the sounds and rhythm of the block, and how you find yourself making music out of your drudgery. Most importantly, they capture the warmth, familiarity, and goodwill of neighborhood life – and the characters therein.
There is Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her stage role), the block’s collective abuela, who gets the film’s most inspired (and moving) single sequence, a beautiful dream walk through her long life, staged on a series of subway cars and platforms. There are Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), and Cuca (Dascha Polanco), the gossips of the nail and hair salon, who function as a kind of Greek chorus – and are on their way out of the neighborhood, “priced out” to Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
There is Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns the car service, and his daughter and apple of his eye, Nina (Leslie Grace), just back from Stanford, and feeling some kind of way about it; her performance, and her heartbreaking ballad of confession, are keenly attuned to the specific misery of going away with everyone’s hopes pinned to your success, and feeling like you’ve failed them. “You can’t keep putting your life’s work on my shoulders,” she tells her father, and he doesn’t quite know how to take it. Smits, perpetually undervalued, does some of his best work to date here, painting a portrait of wounded pride and barely hidden desperation – note how, when an employee realizes, and notes, “You never finished high school,” he takes a modest beat before proudly replying, “But Nina did.” There is a lot going on in that beat.
That employee is Benny, Nina’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, and played by Straight Outta Compton alum Corey Hawkins, who works every scene like he’s stealing it, and usually is. But the primary focus of the ensemble cast is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs his late father’s corner bodega – the perfectly, generically named City Mart Deli – while dreaming of returning to the Dominican Republic, and of dating Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the salon’s nail stylist, who herself dreams of being a downtown fashion designer.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this invested in an on-screen couple, but you just want them to make it happen – they’re both so charming and charismatic and attractive, but more importantly, they’re similarly starry-eyed in their hopes and dreams. And their dynamic is delightful; she’s the forward, confident one, and he’s so nervous around her, which both garners some laughs and causes some complications. (Also of note in the supporting ranks is Marc Anthony, who conveys an entire wretched history and bleak future in but one short scene, with just a few words and gestures.)
Chu’s direction is just a little too slick – particularly in the musical numbers, which he frames and cuts like he’s still shooting the sleek surfaces of Crazy Rich Asians. It’s not that there’s no precedent for this approach; he sometimes seems to be throwing back to glossy NYC musicals like On the Town and Bells are Ringing. But that’s an uneasy fit for this story of working class people, an aesthetic that is somewhat at odds with the authenticity of the script and lyrics, and their real life concerns (like immigration and gentrification). Plus, those films were mostly shot on back lots, and though In the Heights is shot on location, its Heights often feels inhabited – yet not really lived in.
But he does add some lovely little touches, like the clever use of floating animation during a round-robin of rhymes, and a late dance sequence whose staging is so ingenious, I won’t rob you of its surprise. And he makes elegant and inventive use of real neighborhood locations, capturing the hustle-bustle of J. Hood Wright Park, or the combination of cooling down and showing off at the Highbridge Pool (shot, unsurprisingly but inspiredly, like a Busby Berkeley number). It’s a great New York movie – and more specifically, a great New York in the summer movie, with sequences of absolute, uncut joy (like the makeshift “Carnaval del Barrio,” which is like a shot of cinematic adrenaline).
There are real ideas at work here (most potently the concept of powerlessness in the face of a shifting neighborhood – do you deal, fight, adjust, or all of the above), but what’s most striking about In the Heights is the unapologetic, almost operatic, romanticism at its center. Here and in Hamilton, Miranda and his collaborators refuse to cloak these big emotions in irony, or cynicism, or any of the guards most artists – most people, in fact – put up to keep themselves from really feeling things. It’s risky, and occasionally it ventures into the realm of corn. But it’s also why this work is so affecting; it’s so open-hearted that even the picture’s occasional too-shiny surfaces can’t keep that at bay.
“In the Heights” is now on HBO Max and in theaters Friday.