Usually whenever an entry dawdles in my head unwritten for such a ludicrous time span, I don’t preface its procrastinated release with hyperbole to the effect of “It’s an entry five months in the making!” as if I’ve been toiling away on it day and night, tinkering with every last clause and syllable with a mental toolkit until I achieved self-expressive perfection. Sometimes that is my writing process in my mind, till I unveil the end results and then spot three typos and six flat punchlines. That isn’t the excuse here.
I saw the year’s one big musical In the Heights on opening weekend back in June, then, as is my process, decided to let it simmer a few days. During those moments of reflection, the film instantly fell out of favor as the internet dogpiled on producer/co-creator/Tony Award Winner Lin-Manuel Miranda for misrepresenting the correct demographic percentages of Washington Heights — the real, titular NYC neighborhood where it’s set — in particular the Afro-Latino population, which is in the film but in reduced proportions. Miranda profusely apologized, but forgiveness didn’t rescue its box office prospects. America was mad that Miranda and/or the casting director stood revealed as fake Heights geeks. They could’ve sent research assistants into the neighborhood with clipboards to focus-group the thing, replicated those results in their casting choices, and possibly satisfied everyone. Or Miranda and co-creator/Pulitzer Prize Winner Quiara Alegría Hudes could’ve made up a fictional NYC neighborhood of their own to fill up as they pleased and called it, I dunno, Lincoln Springs or Roosevelt Tundras or Clinton Sinkholes or whatever. They’d have had their unrestricted sandbox to play in and avoided aesthetic liability. They declined both scenarios and went their own way, all because they failed to time-travel to now and listen to my suggestions.
So here I was, committed to the MCC rule that every movie I see in theaters gets an entry, having seen a movie that was sent straight to Twitter Jail. I saw no comfy window of opportunity to step up and ask into the void, “Hi, everybody! Who wants to hear some amateur white guy’s opinions on the thing you just raked over the coals for inaccurate nonwhiteness?” So In the Heights sat in the files for five months, plenty of time for it to fall off the pop culture radar and for me to forget 90% of what I saw. It’s not the best pre-writing exercise.
It’s just as well that the finer details are lost, so I can save time and verbiage on the obligatory “plot summary” part. A neighborhood full of dreamers, more of whom should be Afro-Latino yet are not because of abject moral failure, dedicate their lives and energy to chasing their dreams, nearly all of whom hope those dreams lead them out of the neighborhood, which they love enough to sing joyous songs about but not enough to take their residence as a permanent given. By the end some characters are on their way to dream fulfillment. Some older characters compare and contrast their original dreams with their replacement dreams, and mull over what the difference means to them. One character’s refreshingly mature epiphany is that every generation also needs dreamers whose dream is to help other dreamers achieve their dreams. As a viewer whose original dreams were all dead by age 20 and who then puttered around for years without one, I could feel more than a smidgen of resonance in their inspiring stories.
To be fair, my faculties may have been overwhelmed by the sound system. Heights was my first time ever paying extra for a Dolby Cinema showing for the sake of a musical. As of early June I’d been fully vaccinated for five or six weeks and was missing the super-sized theatrical experience. A project from the mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose trailers I never once grew tired of, seemed a valid reason to go big. I approved of the expenditure and left the screening sufficiently smiling and peppy. If I’d written about all this sooner, I might’ve gone into more about the moments of magical realism, or dwelt on the fact that films about dancing usually aren’t my thing but after Heights I kind of wish they had been all along. At the very least, I could toss in an obligatory Busby Berkeley reference with greater authority.
From my extremely limited exposure to the works of director Jon M. Chu, I can confirm Heights is a thousand times better than G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and I should make more of an effort to check out Crazy Rich Asians sometime. If he stays committed to directing the big-screen adaptation of Broadway’s Wicked as he presently is, I absolutely vow to be there opening weekend.
Back in June I loved In the Heights so much that it spurred me to watch Hamilton next on Disney+. Yes, just now. Yes, finally. Yes, I know. I know. I SAID I KNOW, STOP BEING LOUDLY INCREDULOUS AT ME. I kept putting it off and putting it off and putting it off and I had no valid reason why except the run time was a little daunting…which is an even stupider excuse in hindsight knowing it’s the exact same length as No Time to Die. Obviously we couldn’t pay six thousand dollars 36 months in advance to catch it on Broadway when that was the only option. Live performances are cool but I would’ve preferred it with subtitles anyway. Point is, now I’ve seen it and loved it even more. I get the hype. I may be the only person in the world to have watched the Heights film version before watching any version of Hamilton, but at least I got there.
With five months elapsed between then and now, though, the back-to-back experiences have developed one striking difference: I can barely remember a single Heights tune without concentrating really hard, or cheating and pulling up the trailer. I likewise sat through only a single showing of Hamilton, and on a much smaller TV with lousier sound, and yet numbers such as “The Room Where It Happens”, “What’d I Miss”, and the title track lodged in my brain and I can still feel their choruses reverberating. Heights may have been Miranda’s first, but Hamilton remains his best. (Moana remains great, too.)
…okay, so I cheated and just now watched the Heights trailer again. That helped. I’m sorry the film displeased a lot of folks. External criticisms notwithstanding, it’s among my favorite films of 2021. Among other accomplishments, it made me jealous of my reality in which I wish we lived in the kind of offline neighborhood where folks might ever simply talk to each other, let alone sing or dance together.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns, which we can still do even though this technically isn’t a full-fledged review:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Among those I’ve seen before, as is always this section’s focus: Hamilton‘s Anthony Ramos is our main character Usnavi, a young bodega owner who might have a chance to use lottery winnings to move to the Dominican Repubiic, where he was born and dreams of seeing again someday. Corey Hawkins (Kong: Skull Island, Heath from The Walking Dead), is Usnavi’s best friend Benny. Actors new to me include Melissa Barrera (who’ll be the fifth Scream) as Usnavi’s crush Vanessa, a would-be fashion designer; and Leslie Grace (poised to become DC’s next Batgirl for HBO Max) as Nina, a college student who’s learned Stanford sucks. I would’ve seen Olga Merediz in bit parts in a plethora of productions (Changing Lanes, Requiem for a Dream); here she’s center stage as Abuela Claudia, the gracious found-family aunt of the entire neighborhood who’s awesome and essential to Heights and the Heights.
Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs. the Bronx) is Sonny, the youngest of the bunch, Usnavi’s sole employee, whose dream goes unspoken the longest and reminds us some dreams will require a long, hard journey to pay off, but they’re worth the pursuit. TV’s Jimmy Smits is Nina’s dad, who fumbles a “Gift of the Magi” stunt for her sake. Singer Marc Anthony is Sonny’s dad. Miranda himself drops by as a singing cart vendor selling piragua (shaved ice) in direct competition with an angry ice cream man played by Christopher Jackson, Hamilton‘s stellar George Washington. Other neighbors include Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Stephanie Beatriz.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the In the Heights end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship, especially if they’re sensitive about years-old musicals…]
…we return once more to the rivalry between Miranda’s cart and General Washington’s ice cream truck. Alas, the victory goes to Mr. Piragua when the ice cream truck breaks down. As a gesture of good will or just to rub it in, Miranda offers him a freebie.