Tropic Sprockets / In the Heights

By Ian Brockway

Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) directs the screen adaptation of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Tony Award winning musical, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The film is exuberant and stirring with eye-popping visuals and a carbonated spirit. While it is predominately feel-good, it is supposed to be, and its effervescent vivid spirit brings irrepressible cheer to our post pandemic times.

Usnavia (Anthony Ramos) is a young man from the Dominican Republic with dreams of continuing his father’s business where he was born. He runs a bodega and employs his cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). Usnavia has a crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) but is too nervous to ask her out. She has an air of being too driven. Vanessa works at a beauty salon, yearning to be a fashion designer.

Usnavia prides himself on being part of a community that thrives and breathes within a musical realm, very literally, and he creates the best coffee that everyone craves.

Kevin (Jimmy Smits), a taxi company boss, enters the shop and laments that money is tight. Benny (Corey Hawkins) the dispatcher arrives for his coffee as well. Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) has returned from Stanford.

Usnavia is full of good cheer and for the most part, happy go lucky. He has an all-welcoming inclusive spirit. In romantic pursuits he is nonchalant and mostly always charming.

The visual accents and tones in the film are Disney-eyed and Oz like: the skies are blue and the pouring water and the birds syncopate with a harmonic vibration. The cups appear to embrace the coffee that sloshes within. But don’t let the technicolor flavors overwhelm you.

The songs are catchy, percussive and ebullient, another lyrical triumph for Miranda. The songs capture the joy and verve of Hudes’ Washington Heights to perfection.

Ramos has a superb voice and he fully encapsulates his plucky role. Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace are equally terrific, embodying the great cinematic lovers of the past, echoing Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood. Olga Merediz reprises her role from the stage production as Abuela and her role has charm and heartbreak.

There is a wondrous swimming pool scene that rivals Busby Berkeley. While some might say the film quotes often from “West Side Story,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “ Romeo and Juliet” and even Bollywood film, so be it, but the electric charges produced are undeniable.

The Disney dénouement of the story is completely on key and on purpose. This is what makes musicals such heady elixirs—they are big, bold and in constant motion. “In The Heights” illustrates why the musical is so iconic and affectionate, so large and treasured within our visual history. With verve and style, Chu’s film is a bold exclamation point, upside down and right side up, declaring the musical as an inclusive rite of passage for every single person.

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