Life rarely turns out like we expect. We all have big dreams, a yearning to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We give a lot of thought about what comes after our hometown and family.
What we actually don’t appreciate is the impact our home communities have on our dreams and what we have been chasing our whole life is right in front of us.
The value of community versus big dreams is the foundation for the movie, In the Heights. Taking place on a corner of Washington Heights, New York, a neighborhood full of dreamers weigh the measure of leaving to pursue their dreams against the specter of what is to become of Washington Heights when all its dreamers walk away?
In the Heights, directed by Crazy, Rich, Asians Director Jon M. Chu, is based on the Broadway musical of the same name written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. Similar to Hamilton, this musical is a delightful mashup of many genres, only except in this case, the music feels perfectly authentic to the heavy Hispanic community of Washington Heights. It’s like Miranda put the musical stylings of freestyle rap, hip-hop, and salsa numbers all in a blender which works much better than it sounds. Look no further than “Carnaval Del Barrio,” one of the film’s signature numbers, to prove the above point.
Starring in the movie is Anthony Ramos in his first leading role as Usnavi de la Vega, a young man working his own convenient store and dreaming of moving away to fix up his deceased father’s home in the Dominican Republic. His dream takes center stage in the film and ultimately delivers the film’s main message of dreams never realized in the way we expect.
This cast is simply incredible, the film makes the ensemble more of a family than a community. The emotional linchpin is the character of Abuela Claudia played by Olga Merediz, the actress who played the same role on Broadway for 10 years. She’s the honorary grandmother of the Washington Heights neighborhood, looking after everyone as if they were her own. Merediz is sensational, she’s effortlessly charming and carries one of the biggest musical moments, the emotional showstopper, “Paciencia Y Fe.”
The film in and of itself feels like a callback to the heyday of movie musicals, a time when that genre ruled the movie business. It is big, bold, flashy, and very in your face. Filled with huge dance numbers and mostly made up of continuous non-stop songs, this is very much a musical inspired by some of the greatest works of the classics. However, because it's so unapologetically a musical, your mileage may vary on how you can enjoy the narrative. This genre of film is the kind that either people love or hate. If you don’t like musicals, well then you don’t like musicals and this movie, quite frankly, doesn’t care.
Miranda may feel that his passion project that first debuted on Broadway in 2005 is more relevant now in 2021. One of the biggest themes in the film is the reality of small pockets of communities slowly being erased across the United States as people move away or are forced to move. It is hard for those left behind to watch the slow death a neighborhood faces when the youth leave and new residents, made-up of different backgrounds, take their place. Many communities are facing gentrification and the film stresses communities are where life’s greatest joys can be unearthed. One walks away remembering where one comes from, but also to continue remembering, instead of letting it become a distant memory — to fight for the, as Abuela Claudia would say, "little details that tell the world, we are not invisible."