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Do the Right Sing

"In the Heights" brings Broadway home

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I didn't know this before yesterday, but apparently musicals are an acquired taste. I thought everyone liked musicals. Isn't "The Sound of Music" one of the most popular movies of all time? I also don't know a single human person who doesn't love "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" or "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." With all of these obviously incontrovertible facts known and accepted, I spent all weekend trying to get someone to go see the new musical, "In the Heights" with me, to no avail. Everyone's answer: "Musicals aren't really my thing."

Well, moving pictures are my thing and songs are my thing, so the combination of the two is a recipe for my happiness and a fairly logical progression of coolness. As a pretty big fan of "Hamilton," I was excited they had made a movie out of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway sensation, as I had zero familiarity with it before it was announced.

The Magic of Cinema meets the Magic of Broadway. - COURTESY HBOMAX
  • Courtesy HBOMax
  • The Magic of Cinema meets the Magic of Broadway.

With music and lyrics by Miranda, created from a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, "In the Heights" follows a group of mostly Dominican characters over three days leading up to a blackout in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. The film feels like a less dramatic version of "Do the Right Thing" except without racial tension or the simmering threat of violence. In fact, all of the drama of "In the Heights" is on a much smaller scale than I expected. The tension all comes from character relationships as opposed to making a larger statement about racism and violence in the city.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, the damn visionary behind such American masterworks as "Step Up 2: The Streets," "Step Up 3D" and... "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," (one of these things is not like the other ones), Chu adds so much energy and beauty to some of the musical numbers that it's hard not to get swept up in the old-fashioned sense of joy that the best movie musicals can provide.

"When the Sun Goes Down" is a beautifully choreographed song and dance between Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace along the side of an apartment building, with the characters falling in love as they defy gravity running up and down the walls. The number gave me goosebumps and it should stand the test of time as one of the best musical set-pieces since the heyday of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Miranda brings his trademark flows to the lyrical style, and while none of his bars reach the, ahem, heights of "Hamilton," it's easy to see why the show propelled him into an entirely new level of popularity. The characters and the story feel honest and the drama feels authentic to the story instead of manufactured to try to make a point. Instead of violence and racism and slowly building hatred, the real villain of "In the Heights," aside from U.S. immigration policy, is gentrification.

Washington Heights is becoming unrecognizable to its inhabitants, so instead of the film being about how this change drives everyone into becoming more isolated and angry, almost every song and dance number is about community and love and being a part of something bigger than yourself. It's a lovely sentiment and something far more uplifting and current and culturally relevant than I was expecting.

The songs might not be quite as good as in "Hamilton," but "In the Heights" has a bigger heart and stronger characters. This definitely won't get Boomers into rap music like "Hamilton" did, but that's good. This isn't for them. This is for people who struggle to afford to pay rent in the neighborhood they grew up in and don't know whether to stay and keep fighting or leave and start over. "In the Heights" takes a stand that your community isn't the place where you are, but the people you're with and the family that you've created. Now that's something to sing about.

In the Heights
Dir. Jon M. Chu
Grade: A-
Now Streaming on HBOMax and playing in theaters

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