In the Heights (2021)
A film based on the Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical
Every NYC-area cyclist worth his/her salt knows Washington Heights, even if they’ve only stopped to take a swig out of their water bottle. It’s the last stop in Manhattan before you cross the George Washington Bridge, which is the gateway to the hills of River Road, Nyack, and Bear Mountain.
To me, it’s more than a rest stop. WH is where I’ve attended seders, eaten at a Singaporean restaurant, and done hill repeats with my bike in lovely Fort Tryon Park. Once Jewish and Irish, now mostly Hispanic, WH doesn’t need an HR policy to ensure it’s an inclusive and diverse neighborhood.
Most of all, WH is a neighborhood with a pulse. And it is exactly that vivacity that Jon Chu’s film version of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In the Heights” captures so superbly.
Mind you, ITH is a musical, so by definition the choreography and music take precedence over the book. And hey, how about that choreography: Christopher Scott deserves a special place in Heaven for his lighter-than-air, over-the-top dance productions inspired not only by Busby Berkeley movies but the most electrifying dance scenes from West Side Story and Saturday Night Fever.
Then there’s the lyrics. Fans of “Hamilton” will literally LOL listening to Usnavi (freckle-faced, cheerful Anthony Ramos) rap out his songs, as they are an early indication of the genius LMM will bring to the impossible-to-get-tickets musical we saw back in 2015. (Um, that would be the original-cast Hamilton, k?)
The plot is secondary and fairly serviceable. Usnavi (I won’t reveal what his name means) owns a bodega in the Heights but dreams of returning home to the Dominican Republic with his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) and his abuela (Olga Merediz). Meanwhile, he pines for a date with gorgeous Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Daniela,the local beautician (Daphne Rubin-Vega who is always and will ever more be
in class by herself) is leaving the hood for the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) may have to sell his car service business to keep his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) in Stanford.
Oh yes and Lin-Manuel Miranda has a small role in the movie too—as the piragua man, the guy who sells shaved ice drinks on summer days so hot, the kids open up the fire hydrants and let the water swoosh. (So great to ride your bike through! Right, Bike? Bike: Shut up, Aug.)
First, suffice to say all these stories are worked out (hey, musicals need happy endings right?) Second, because ITH is a musical, keep in mind that if you do visit the real WH, you’re not going to find troupes of dancers synchronize swimming in public pools, or couples in love dancing on the sides of buildings (see also: “LaLa Land”). But for a joyful couple of hours, the film offers a devil-may-care, idealized look at a neighborhood that marches to its own beat, and that makes me proud to be a New Yorker.
So after you catch the flick (available in theaters and on HBO Max), do yourself a favor and hop on the A train up to the real Washington Heights.
Or if you want to be a real New Yorker, ride a Citibike there and grab some laksa, or carnitas, or burrata.
Doesn’t really matter. Everything’s good in the Heights.