When was the last time you were immersed in a musical experience? That’s the magic In the heights Spark, an exciting adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. When our hero Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) wakes up and makes the familiar moves early in the morning to open his bodega on the street corner, we are drawn into his world and resistance is futile. The Latinx quarter is preparing for a new day and everyone is moving into the infectious rhythms of life. What a start to a movie!
Little by little we meet the other residents of this vibrant Washington Heights community. Most of them are from the Dominican Republic – from a proud taxi driver to an angelic woman who is everyone’s Abuela (grandmother). There’s the girl who dreams of becoming a fashion designer if someone just gave her a chance and the super-intelligent student whose first semester in college disaffected her. The neighborhood salon owner was forced to move further into town to the Bronx, however In the heights refuses to indulge in negativity even if it recognizes such modern evils as gentrification. Corey Hawkins, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Chris Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz, Leslie Grace (and the rest of the cast) make wonderful and passionate performances.
The film doesn’t tell a story so much as it paints a mosaic of quick texts (from the man who made us Hamilton) extol the virtues of fellowship and shared experiences, both good and bad. Attractive performances by various screen newcomers, exciting dance interludes and a feeling of authenticity and immediacy pulsate through the film.
Jon M. Chu was born to stage this picture. He has proven his love for film musicals time and again in his short but meteoric career. (One day people will discover Step up 3, belittled when it came up and gave it the applause it deserves.) He’s not afraid to emulate great musicals of the past – even Rouben Mamoulian Love me tonightwith an open heart and without a bit of irony.
Any film that offers so many cheering moments must be forgiven for its flaws. Hudes’s optimistic script is essentially a clothesline on which a series of musical vignettes are strung. You are the heart and soul of the movie, but during the transition moments between production numbers I felt my mind wander. Even if the rough edges are sanded down to a certain extent, the dramatic storylines are all too familiar and cannot last a film that has been running for well over two hours.
But only a misanthrope could dismiss such an exuberant conversation. I predict that many viewers will cheer, not just because of the feeling the film evokes, but also because of the pleasure of watching it with an audience on a larger than life screen in a darkened cinema.