Now if you’ve followed me on this site for a bit, you know that I am a theater “should a been a” baby! Coming from a lower income family did not allot much toward the theater or live performing arts – but I did manage to go to a university production of “The Man in the Iron Mask” in grade school and I have fond memories of my grandmother treating me to a dinner theater production of “Annie,” which cemented my love of musicals.
So, I was hyped a few years back to see a travelling production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton,” which was still one of the hottest tickets to get your hands on. And boy, was I blown away and completely mesmerized by Miranda’s skills! I mean this man created a lyrical and musical masterpiece, and I was convinced I was watching a gift from a literary genius.
But, because I hadn’t yet seen his earlier stage work “In the Heights,” I had no idea that he’d demonstrated his genius with this production years earlier, and now everyone with access to a movie theater and HBO Max can witness his magnificence once more (Hamilton was released on Disney+ back in 2020).
A joyous and reflective celebration of culture and community, “In the Heights” is centered in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights, and follows protagonist Usnavi (a wonderfully compelling Anthony Ramos) and a host of characters on their paths towards discovering, achieving, and fulfilling their dreams.
It’s an entertaining and educational work of art that highlights the power and safety in community, family (whether by birth or non-blood relatives), as well as threats that can destroy them – including gentrification, displacement (especially with rent increases), the targeting of undocumented immigrants, and prejudice.
The power of Miranda’s pen lies in his ability to shine a spotlight on topics that are relevant through periods of time and with a universality penetrating throughout.
I did not need to be a person of Latino or Caribbean descent to cheer for the characters nor understand each of their plights. And I literally yelled “hey” at the most appropriate times, not knowing the chorus/characters would be yelling the same – especially when it came to spot on references on social dilemmas and causes, like Sonny’s (Gregory Diaz IV) feature during the song “96,000” (you’ll see it, it’s hot!).
I wish I wasn’t too immunocompromised (at the moment) to attend a crowded theater during this pandemic, because I would love to see my Latino brothers and sisters celebrating positive, non-stereotypical reflections of themselves on the big screen – with a screen full of Brown people. I am quite certain this occasion will be just as lauded as the arrival of “Black Panther” – because you know us Black folk showed up and showed out when we saw a Marvel film with a cast of predominantly Black people.
I don’t know why it bears explaining, but some won’t understand why the former nods are so important still in 2021. The short answer is we (people of color) are still catching up from decades of not seeing positive and accurate representations of ourselves on screens – big and small.
Along with “96,000” and the aforementioned rap by Sonny, there are so many fave scenes for me in this film – especially the “Carnaval del Barrio” and “Respira” numbers. And keep some tissues on hand, if you tend to “smell onions” like me during bittersweet parts – there’s at least one or two that might choke you up.
And am I late to the party, because I didn’t know Corey Hawkins, aka Dr. Dre from “Straight Outta Compton,” could sing! His versatility shines in this one along with many others including Dascha Polanco, who portrays Cuca the outspoken salon worker many will remember as Daya from “Orange Is the New Black,” and Jimmy Smits gets in a tune during the film and lets loose during the Carnaval too!
Now again, I never saw the Broadway nor Off Broadway productions but I believe director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes adapted this one as if it was tailor made for the screen. There are some huge musical displays, but the transitions to those moments are tight and allow the story to flow. And many of the quieter, more intimate moments still keep the audience captivated and engaged in the narrative.
All in all, “In the Heights” is a magnificent story of dreamers and cultural celebration. I think I might love this one more than “Hamilton” (and I loooved Hamilton) because I’m already on my third watch. It’s definitely one that musical lovers and those who enjoy a good sing-a-long will want to keep in the queue.
I rate the film 5 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.
IN THE HEIGHTS is in theaters now and streaming on HBO Max until July 11.
PS: there is a post credit scene, so watch until the very end!
Until next thought, Thomasena
Awesome review! Can’t wait to see it; especially if you think it’s better than Hamilton. I know how much you love Hamilton!