In The Heights (2021): Review and Breakdown
We all were robbed of the community-shared movie-watching experience in the past year. To a certain extent and after going through multiple Twitter battles, everyone could somewhat agree to one thing: nothing really would ever beat the actual cinema-going experience. But every once in a while, a film comes along that reinforces that idea. This year, Jon M. Chu’s new film In The Heights (2021) made me realize something I already knew but was, unfortunately, beginning to forget. The ironic part is, that it got me overwhelmed with the joy of watching a film so vibrant, all over again. All of that, with me sitting comfortably on my living room couch.
Adapted from Miranda’s Tony Award-winning Broadway show, this Hollywood flick oozes with visual and musical energy. It beautifully and effectively depicts the Latino culture in the United States. Jon M. Chu had previously proved his talent with the amazingly crafted Crazy Rich Asians back in 2018 (also available on Amazon Prime), which packaged both complexity and diversity in a fully entertaining rom-com, though never at a narrative expense. Here, he outdoes himself.
Related Read to In The Heights (2021): In The Heights Tribeca Review: A Delightful Mania of Music and Dance
The film dances its way into telling us the story of a neighborhood, mostly crowded with first-generation Latinx immigrants. The world-building is so good, that you could almost feel the melancholic sense of communal belonging there. Sitting on a picturesque tropical beach is Usnavi (Usnavi), telling his tale to a bunch of adorable kids early on in the film. His dream is to return to the happy Dominican Republic of his childhood. But as one might expect going into a film like this, there’s also a love interest. He wants to ask out Vanessa, played by the dazzling Melissa Barrera, out on a date. The film cleverly and never overtly reflects its politics through the character of Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s cousin. Usnavi wants to take him to the Dominican Republic someday, unsure of how he’s still struggling to find his own place and career in a country that’s ever-growing. There’s also the smart college student Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), fiercely battling her way against the white-dominant Stanford. But her plans to drop out of college disappoint her idealist father, Kevin (Jimmy Smith). This side-plot forms the necessary emotional core of the film, grounding everything that surrounds reality. She finds her support in the extremely charismatic Benny (Corey Hawkins), an energetic dispatcher.
When it comes to genre films, musical is by far my least favorite of all genres. Surprisingly, In The Heights had just enough amount of narrative pull to keep me invested. The film cleverly uses “the blackout” as a plotting device and doesn’t allow itself to overflow outside events that don’t add to that storyline. Also notice the great use of diegetic sound, especially throughout the brilliant first act of the film. We see most things unfold during that musical number, through the perspective of Usnavi, serving as a perfect entry point into this harmonious world.
Myron Kerstein’s incredibly fast-paced snappy editing never comes across as jarring; it’s not the usual quick-cut hyperactive style you would see in most musicals. The production design by Nelson Coates along with the costume design by Mitchell Travers makes sure that you take notice of every inch of that vibrant color-pallete. Christopher Scott’s choreographed dance scenes and shot selections blend perfectly well with the film’s overall breathtaking visual innuendo. One of my favorite sequences involves a moment of clever foreshadowing around a bunch of wistful vintage subway cars, where the matriarch of the neighborhood, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) asserts the importance of a lottery ticket in the culture. The film works in spite of having an overload of characters because it sets up this world really well through such clever instances of visual storytelling incorporated with a musical, magical touch.
The scenic overlooks from outside the skyscrapers where a couple lees off and dances on the side of a New York City building is a sight to behold. In another similarly impressive and vibrant, if not more breathtaking sequence filmed around one gigantic public pool, the entire neighborhood joins in for my favorite musical sequence in the entire film, called “96,000”. In an interview, Gregory Diaz IV who plays Sonny in the film said, “96,000 was my favorite, and not even just because I got to rap. It was more so the environment as a whole was so hyped-up, and the energy was so high. We had 500-plus extras on the set. It doesn’t get any better than that. It honestly felt like a real pool party off of the camera.”
Also Read: The 10 Best Movie Musicals in Cinema
Overall, In The Heights is a film about the marginalized people’s fight against displacement that also feels exuberant and guileless due to its faithful direction. The film is not just about celebrating one’s own dignity and home, but also about cherishing life itself. I can’t recommend this film enough to everyone, and it’s easily the most fun I’ve had watching an OTT release this year. You can watch the film on Amazon Prime Video.