So much has happened in the world that could affect the basic premise of the musical In the Heights between its Broadway stage beginnings in 2008 and its cinematic manifestation last year that it’s impossible not to ponder them while watching the movie. The most direct influence was the extraordinary success of Hamilton, another Broadway musical by composer and original lead actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, who provides a clever cameo in the film. Miranda’s work explores how people of color with mixed backgrounds navigate the promises of America, and in that regard In the Heights is more approachable since it’s contemporary. In fact, the movie version seems to be taking place around now, though that other big change, Trumpism, is barely mentioned. Still, anyone who enters a movie theater right now to bask in the film’s infectious score and general atmosphere of cross-cultural solidarity can’t help but think of the actual world outside the theater and just how realistic the characters’ hopes and dreams are.
The “heights” refers to Washington Heights, the uptown Manhattan neighborhood that has been home to a large Latin community — both immigrant and native born — for decades, and its theme is one that Jane Jacobs would approve of and could use as an illustration of her urban studies theories: neighborhoods are the bedrock of a city, not only in terms of cultural viability but economic resilience as well. As with the play, the movie charts half a dozen storylines that only occasionally cross, thus freeing Miranda and writer Quiara Alegria Hudes from the burden of trying to make some kind of grand statement. Each story has its own statement, and keeping them intimate and simple is the key to their power. The character who holds it all together is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the owner of a bodega that’s smack in the middle of the Heights, thus not only giving him a vantage point from which to observe the various plot vectors, but the film a central location from which to launch many of its big production numbers. The long opening song, which is meant to put across the notion that living in the Heights means living with music constantly, is first reflected in the window of Usnavi’s bodega, as the morning crowd spontaneously morphs into a dancing, singing community. Even the inanimate objects join in the symphony.
If the stories themselves aren’t as striking as the songs that explicate them, it’s mainly because all are presented as familiar threads in the American fabric: the woman who quits Stanford because she feels out of place in a white person’s world; her father’s angry disappointment at her not fulfilling his dream of her making it in the white person’s world; the hair stylist who wants to move downtown and become a fashion designer; the undocumented immigrant who works to secure permanent residency; the elderly abuela who endured the abuse of white employers for decades and dreams of her native Cuba. Even Usnavi’s story, which involves his saving enough money to move back to Dominica to fix up a bar once owned by his parents, means looking beyond the Heights for something else when, in fact, everything they have that is worth having is right there. Though these themes seeemed corny to me when I saw the stage musical years ago, right now they make much more sense as diversity is being challenged as a cultural goal by the powers that be, and not only in the U.S. As for the controversy surrounding the film and which Miranda has addressed, as a white person I’m not sure how to talk about whether the actors chosen are themselves diverse enough to carry these themes accurately. But director Jon M. Chu knows how to balance the drama with the music and the comedy, which itself provides welcome diversity to the musical film genre: rock, hip-hop, salsa, and the usual American musical theater bombast. It works exceedingly well in that you leave the theater exhilirated and, I would like to think, enlightened.
Opens July 30 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Piccadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Wald (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
In the Heights home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.