Saturday, June 12, 2021

In the Heights


With the backdrop of a Caribbean beach, Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) recounts his life in New York’s Washington Heights to a group of curious kids, one of whom is his daughter. As the owner of a bodega, he rubs elbows with a lot of people and knows most of the members of the neighborhood including: Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), everyone’s grandma who raised him when his parents died; Benny (Corey Hawkins), his friend who works as a dispatcher at a taxi company; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), his love interest who is an aspiring fashion designer but just couldn’t get a break; Nina (Leslie Grace), the golden girl of the community who is having a hard time adjusting to life at Stanford; as well as his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) who helps him run his shop. When news breaks out about a $96,000 lottery winner who purchased the ticket at his store, the neighborhood is set abuzz with the prospect of winning the prize money amidst the sweltering summer heat.

In the Heights the musical, not the film, was popular back in the day, at least in the musical theater circles. Notorious as it might have been, I never really got the chance to witness it onstage. Watching it on HBO Max without an inkling as to what the heck it is all about significantly lowered my expectations, and the result is a fun musical reverberating with infectious Caribbean beats that just make you want to get up and dance. It’s enjoyable like that while not forgetting to stake its claim on the current discourse of social relevance ever prevalent in America.

As an onscreen musical, there is something different about this one that is simply hard to put a finger on. Perhaps it has something to do with the quality of the sound editing? I don’t know, but somehow it felt similar to what it would have been had I seen it onstage. Whatever they did with the audio obviously worked. The song numbers do not sound muffled at all. At this point I could just imagine how great the experience would have been in a cinema with a state-of-the-art surround sound system.

And then you have the dance choreography. There are several of them that just keep your eyes glued to the screen. A personal favorite is the one towards the end where everyone is languishing in the summer heat when Daphne Rubin Vega’s Daniela coaxes all of them to one big neighborhood dance off complete with flags from all over Latin America. It would have felt like a contrived attempt to shove the race card down your throat, but seeing everybody get up and jive to the music just makes you beam with orgullo latino, even if you are not really part of that community.

As for the songs, some are catchy, some not so. The most memorable would be, without a doubt, Abuela Claudia’s Paciencia y Fe. The lyrics are an apt summary of the immigrant experience and Merediz’s vocals and poignant interpretation simply blows you away. Add the visuals and choreography set in the NYC underground and you end up with a perfect audiovisual experience that just gives you goosebumps. And then you have Lin Manuel Miranda’s Piragua which serves as a cheeky homage to the material’s creator without necessarily taking away the spotlight from the rest of the cast.

Overall, it’s a noteworthy musical that further intensifies the call for representation in Hollywood. It might not be perfect, but it’s the start of something good. Hopefully it becomes successful in paving the way for more narratives like it to grace the big screen. It’s about time.

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