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In the Heights Spins with Exhilarating Empathy

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

‘In the Heights Spins with Exhilarating Empathy’ is now available on Audio, read by author Don Shanahan, exclusively for our Patreon supporters. For just $3 a month you will have access to our full library of Audio content, plus three new uploads every week. To sign up visit our Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/25YL


There is a certain peremptory call-and-response urged early on by the storytelling protagonist of In the Heights. In speaking to curious kids with rapt attention, he pronounces, “Say it so it doesn’t disappear!” when sharing the name of their neighborhood, Washington Heights. Hearing that imperative command, this school-teacher-by-day film critic can’t help but think of Edgar Dale’s old Cone of Experience theory where learners are said to only remember 10% of what they hear versus 70% of what they say and write or 90% of what they actively do.

This central Dominican man named Usnavi, played by the beaming Anthony Ramos, wants those hearing him to verbalize the names and details that need to be entirely remembered. I think I’ll do just that right here:

In the Heights is one of the best musical films of this young century. The vast talent on display in front of and behind the camera is beyond extraordinary in countless ways. This will be the movie, above any action-packed franchise entry, to lift our collective spirits this summer.

There, I said it, hyperbole and all, and I will remember. So will you when you see In the Heights and its passion as well.

Usnavi and Vanessa dance together in front of a street crowd.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Usnavi, wearing his father’s hat and getting called “old man” by these children in an island setting, is telling the Washington Heights story of this traditionally immigrant melting pot occupying the uppermost part of the borough of Manhattan in New York City. The affluent wave of gentrification grips these blocks as badly as the current July summer heat while blue collar individuals and families persevere towards economic success and cultural solidarity. As hard as they are, these are the “best days of my life” for Usnavi.

Everyone circulating through Washington Heights is fueled by “start small, dream big” positive ambition to improve their stars. Many chase what Usnavi calls a “suenito,” translating to a “little dream.” The only thing little about each one is the singular carrier and their respective starting position. The dedication, hustle, plans, and obstacles to reach them are of the opposite size and weight. Multiply that by an entire community and you have ethnic diversity united by interdependence that ties everyone’s dreams and homes together. 

The salon girls strike a pose during a dance.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

For Usnavi, his suenito is to trade his bodega convenience store of libations and lottery tickets for restoring his family’s beachfront restaurant and bar back in the Dominican Republic. Property has been acquired and ink has hit paper for him to leave New York at the end of the summer. He joins small business owners Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and Daniela (Rent’s Daphne Rubin-Vega), one selling to put his daughter Nina (recording artist Leslie Grace) through Stanford and the other moving their salon to more profits downtown, as pending departures to Washington Heights.

Those painful subtractions to the neighborhood are balanced by the resilient spine of commoner visionaries who are rooted and adamant about staying and maintaining their locale. They include the aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, in her American debut), Kevin’s protege Benny (Straight Outta Compton star Corey Hawkins), Usnavi’s grandmother Abuela Claudia (returning Broadway original Olga Merediz), and every scrappy little vendor and civil servant in between. Through songs and exposition written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda, all are swaying and gyrating between working to survive or laboring for love as a countdown of days until a hot blackout ticks closer.

Nina and Benny enjoy a sunrise on a fire escape deck.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

The piles of deserved praise for this incarnation of In the Heights are taller than the enveloping high rises. Virtuoso Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu upgrades the hit Broadway musical and four-time Tony winner into a dynamic big screen extravaganza of unbounded vibrancy. Even when standing still, the production design of Chu’s prior collaborator Nelson Coates and the costuming choices of Mitchell Travers (Hustlers) shine the beautiful and humble grit of both people and places. 

The movements and noises of the production and its ensemble accelerate that intoxicating vigor further. Director of photography Alice Brooks chases the choreographed movements plotted by Christopher Scott to light every drop of sweat on a forehead and every glimmer in an eye (quite the step up from their previous teamwork on Jem and the Holograms). Editor Myron Kerstein (Dukes of Hazzard) sews it all together to match the percussive claps, splashes, manicures, sidewalk steps, dance floor stomps, and more to the well-paced narrative and music itself.

The songs were already legendary and their regard will now only grow with larger silver screen and HBO Max attention. Strap fireworks to the backs of Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, and Corey Hawkins, all hitting supernova levels of radiating charisma from both their performance traits and their dramatic chops to carry scenes without choruses and solos. Likewise, go ahead and champion Olga Merediz next year to add to the Oscar streak of foreign-born women like Zhao Shuzhen of The Farewell and Yuon Yuh-jung of Minari as powerful and unforgettable supporting matriarchs. The people make this movie as much as the music.

Abuela Claudia looks up the the light while singing.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

As if there was any doubt, it doesn’t take any wider eyes than those capturing the plebian pageantry on display to recognize the meaningful platforms symbolized by In the Heights. Characters that assert their dignity in small ways amplify messages with larger substance. The settings and themes of Chu’s film are made all the more important and prescient by our country’s current socio-political times. A 14-year-old musical has not lost an ounce of power in telling the world of an undoubtedly eminent cross-section of American culture that is here and not invisible any longer. 

That demographic counts as “our” and not “their” when it comes to the nation’s ever-evolving story and identity. Now is as good a time as any to, once again, to “say it so it doesn’t disappear.” The empathy of it all is exhilarating.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson," our offshoot of Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com publications. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Assocation and the Online Film Critics Society.

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  1. A joyous show. I know it’s apples and oranges, but I actually prefer it to Hamilton. So looking forward to the movie version.

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