When “In the Heights” hit Broadway in March of 2008, the world seemed to be changing. A US Senator for Illinois, Barak Obama, was elected president in the fall of that same year. “In the Heights” in 2008 celebrated an urban family and their mixed Latino community, centering on a young man who left the Dominican Republic as a boy and dreamed of returning, Usnavi. Under Jon M. Chu’s direction, the cinematic version is imperfect but exuberant and much more political. A reaction to the racial tension that burst into our national consciousness in the post-Obama years?
The summer of 2008, “In the Heights” was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four: Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations. Lin-Manuel Miranda was nominated for lead actor (in a musical), but won for Best Original Score. Quiara Alegría Hudes was nominated for Best Book for a Musical. Both Hudes and Miranda were among the producers of the screen version and Hudes wrote the screenplay. Miranda might not be the young lovelorn Usnavi (he appears in a minor role of the Piragua Guy), but the film of “In the Heights” is still very much their baby, just delivered in a different era, one less hopeful. Love is still at the center of “In the Heights” and love takes many forms here.
First there is love for one’s homeland and that fuels, Usnavi’s sueñito, his little dream. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) wants to have the beach stand, selling tropical drinks in the Dominican Republic where he spent his best years. His parents left it behind, trading it for a bodega in Washington Heights. With both parents gone, Usnavi runs the store with his unreliable but good-natured cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV).
The only possible thing that ties Usnavi to the Heights is the crush Usnavi has on the lovely Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), but she also dreams of leaving the Heights for an apartment in the West Village. Vanessa works at Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Carla’s (Stephanie Beatriz) salon and that salon is moving out of the Heights even though it functions as a gossip hub.
Across from the bodega is a cab company owned by Kevin (Jimmy Smits). Kevin is proud that his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) has left the Heights to attend Stanford, but he’s had to make some financial sacrifices and Nina hasn’t told her father she’s dropped out. When Nina returns for the summer, she starts a romance with her father’s employee, Benny (Corey Hawkins).
While everyone looks to be heading out of the Heights, this is likely the last stop for Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz). She’s old and alone, but not lonely. She’s helped raise both Usnavi and Sonny and her maternal love extends to everyone in the Heights. Abuela brings an all encompassing maternal love, but underneath her kindly exterior is a woman who survived the journey from Cuba to face many indignities in the US.
While everyone dreams and takes chances with the lottery, there is one DREAMer, Sonny. And dreams can come true when someone buys the winning lottery ticket at Usnavi’s bodega. Yet there is also the foreshadowed black out coming.
Coming out in a post-Obama era into a racially charged nation, the film “In the Heights” doesn’t shy away from issues that deeply affect the Latino community. No one thought Trump as a viable presidential candidate when “In the Heights” was on Broadway. In 2008, Trump still had Trump University and legal actions by New York State had yet for force a name change to Trump Entrepreneur Initiative in 2010. Sure “The Simpsons” episode “Bart to the Future” had already been broadcast in 2000 (Season 11, Episode 17), but Trump was best known as a reality show star. Season 7 of “The Apprentice” was released (3 January 2008 – 27 March 2008 but filmed October-November 2007). Piers Morgan would win. “The Celebrity Apprentice 2” or Season 8 would see Joan Rivers as the winner (filmed October-November 2008). In 2009 and 2011, the DREAM Act (first introduced in 2001) was re-introduced and in 2012, Obama announced the deportation of those illegal alien residents who matched the criteria of the proposed DREAM Act would no longer be deported. In June, Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy.
Yet when Obama left office in 2016, things changed. Under the Trump administration, the White House planned to phase out DACA. From Usnavi’s sueñito of returning to the DREAMers determination to stay was not a big thematic leap. It was a natural one, keeping “In the Heights” relevant. There were other changes. Kevin Rosario had a wife, Camila, in the stage version. This might make you groan, and think: “Disney princess syndrome,” but it does give Smits more screen time and you wonder why he isn’t in more musicals. The relationship between Daniela and Carla is more defined in the film. Of course, the blackout that is foreshadowed is better realized in a film than on stage with fireworks and dark alleys to find home. Slate breaks down all the differences.
Chu uses a bit of deception in the film, but it does approximate something that could be done on stage, so I’ll give it a pass, but not let out a spoiler. There’s so much here to celebrate. The musical numbers swoop in and give us full view of the dancers. The frames are filled with information and some nods to old Hollywood during heyday of musicals such as Busby Berkeley choreographed kaleidoscopic numbers or the lovestruck walking on the walls. If you’re not familiar with Berkeley, check out the video below.
In the first eight minutes of “In the Heights,” you’ll see a large dance number reflected in a window. Here cinematographer Alice Brooks shines because we can see Usnavi peering through his bodega’s window, lost in his childhood memories while the community that has become his family is overlaid. Photographers and videographers might eagerly want the details which are provided in a Variety article.
Yet where “In the Heights,” suffers in comparison to the old musicals, is its use of lens flare that I found annoying. That is a minor quibble because finally, “In the Heights” brings much need representation of Latinos to the big screen and Chu’s dancers include people of all colors and body types. Compared to Black people and people of Asian descent, Latinos were severely under represented at both this year’s Golden Globes and Oscars. While it is a shame that Kenny Ortega, who was originally hired to direct and adaptation back in 2008, didn’t get a crack at this, having an Asian American director is still a diversity plus and fits in the film’s theme of inclusion.
You can feel the chemistry between the characters and the ensemble has a cozy sense of long-time acquaintances. Barrera’s Vanessa and Ramos’ Usnavi are sweet and you root for them despite their misunderstandings. Grace’s Nina is comfortable with Hawkin’s Benny like friends who become lovers. Emotionally, I was caught up with the powerful performance of Merediz as Abuela Claudia, but that might be because of my peculiar circumstances. There are no real villains and there will be a poignant, but feel-good ending.
And do stay for the post-credits scene.
Chu’s experience with dancers as director for “Step Up 2: The Streets” (2008) and “Step Up 3D” (2010) and his experimental web series “The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers” (2010-2011) have already established him as a dancers’ director and “In the Heights” solidifies his reputation. This is a feel-good musical about family and a supportive urban neighborhood but unlike the Broadway musical, it also has a clear political bent that isn’t strident, but might turn some people away. “In the Heights” hit Broadway before “Hamilton” premiered in 2015, but “Hamilton” beat it to the screen. Both should make fans of musicals excited for Miranda’s new project. Chu, Hudes and Miranda should be in line for awards and they might raise Latinos and Asians to new historic heights in Hollywood during awards season.