IN THE HEIGHTS–A Celebration of Latino Joy

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So exuberant and full of life that it would probably convince you the movies were back even
if they hadn’t gone anywhere, “In the Heights” is the kind of electrifying theatrical experience
that people have been waxing nostalgic about ever since the pandemic began, the kind that
it almost seemed like we might never get to enjoy again. In that sense, Jon M. Chu’s super-
glossy Broadway adaptation hits with equal parts rapture and relief. Seeing this massive,
guileless, heartfelt piece of Hollywood entertainment on the big screen is like coming home
after a long year in exile only to find that it’s still there, and maybe even better than you
remembered.
Inheriting Miranda’s role with one of the most charismatic and radiantly likable
performances you’ll ever see on a screen of any kind, Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi as a
naturalized storyteller with a twinkle in his eye, and we meet him in his element: Sitting on
the Dominican beach of his dreams and telling some precocious kids about the special
neighborhood that he kept together from behind the register of the bodega that his dad
bequeathed to him.

Every character who walks through the doors of that bodega is cast to perfection; maybe
there “ain’t no Cassiopeia in Washington Heights,” but a new star is born in this movie
virtually every other minute. After Ramos, top of the list might have to be Melissa Barrera,
whose headstrong, also Vanessa is such a compelling dream girl that it’s hard to believe
Usnavi has room for any other sueñitos in his head. He wants to move back to the
Dominican Republic, while she only wants to move downtown and join the fashion industry,
but the mileage hardly seems to matter for mutual crushes who are heading in opposite
directions.
Chu hits a lot more often than he misses, and always when it counts most. One early shot
finds Usnavi staring out from his bodega while in the reflection on the window in front of him
we see dozens of dancers pop and lock together on the street outside; it’s a perfect and
unshakeable expression of someone being split between two worlds even as their home
fades into the stuff of memory. The songs of “In the Heights” lack the historical staying power
that Miranda later brought to “Hamilton” (some of them sound like first drafts for those later
hits), but the cast fills them with such an urgent life force that it hardly matters if the Piragua
Guy’s song one of the catchiest things here.
Lin Manuel has been criticized for not having African-American Latinos in the lead roles. I
really understand this problem and the lack of African-american representation in films in
general. But we also have to take in consideration that there are Latinos of all races and
colors. Many producers and directors often think that a Latino actor can’t be white. Many
Brazilian actors are often told that they can’t play Latino roles, because they are too white. I
believe we have to include all races and colors and we have to know that being Latino
includes much more than a stereotype.
The most import thing is that this vivid and revitalizing work of cultural memory couldn’t be
more at home in the movie theaters that it’s willing back to life. It leaves you so grateful that
someone kept the lights on and preserved the honey-sweet (and slightly embarrassed)

vertigo that sweeps over your whole body when you sit in a dark room and surrender to a
good musical. All you have to do is see it for yourself. As Usnavi would say: “C’mon! Let’s
go!”

FILM REVIEW by Gustavo Pace