Two nights ago I entered a movie theater for the first time in 15 months. It was surreal, and also not. Somehow so much time had passed, and then it all felt so familiar sliding into a seat and sitting in the dark. No, I didn’t weep, but it was lovely to be reminded of how the big screen can make you forget about all that ails you. It did wonders to have the frustrations taking up permanent residence in my head be replaced with pure cinema. Only now do I realize how much of the theatrical experience is like therapy to me.
It also helped that my welcome home was with Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights, a winning adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical set in the New York City enclave of Washington Heights. This bustling neighborhood is within a stone’s throw of the George Washington Bridge and made up primarily of Latino immigrant families and business owners. It’s an expansive and joyous ode to the power of small dreams, and one of the few films that has a strong sense of the collective power of community.
Spinning the fairy tale construct like a top, Chu and writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, who penned the original musical with Lin Manuel-Miranda and adapted it for the screen, employ a bristling cinematic pace in the early musical numbers. At some point, each song deals with the tensions of identity, job security, gentrification, deportation and creative passion, introducing socio-political themes impacting not just the main characters but this place as a whole.
No stranger to the musical genre, Chu stages dance numbers not as highfalutin pastiche but something more organically connected to the ground level. Bodegas, street corners, and community pools all play host to the celebration, where the sounds of everyday hustle and bustle become musical instruments in their own right.
Chu also sees the classic montage as a means to deepen the collective struggle and sense of resilience, as best seen in the eponymous opening number. One of my favorite scenes takes place entirely in a salon run by strong, entrepreneurial women who aren’t above getting caught up in the latest gossip. Unlike most musicals, the energy and momentum of the scene gets passed between every single person singing.
The musical numbers only grow more elaborate from there, expanding to different open spaces that have become part of each character’s daily rituals. One sequence toward the end finds two lovestruck characters dancing on the side of a building. Gravity means nothing when the love of your life is about to leave.
For a 143 minute movie, I was actually surprised how little filler there is; most of the story unfolds in song, with each character receiving a moment to express not only themselves, but their family’s history and journey.
That’s not to say In the Heights is a brisk walk in the park. You feel the weight of the film’s epic trajectory, and the emotional/cultural stakes that it continually returns to. The most moving example is when the film’s matriarch “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz) sees her life flash before her eyes in a time-jumping number that shows just how nimble Chu’s sense of the genre can be.
Most of all though, In the Heights makes it a point to show that these characters are never truly alone with their fears, nor their triumphs. For me personally, that idea meant a lot. The refuge of a flickering screen tends to jar me out of any self-pitying notions and bad temperaments. Losing that outlet has been hard, and until now, I didn’t realize just how hard.
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