With more than half of New Yorkers fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and restrictions on public gatherings easing, this is a time when we get to rediscover some of the activities we missed most during lockdown. “Seeing a movie” wasn’t a difficult thing to do for the past year, if you don’t mind a smaller screen; and many cinephiles used their unaccustomed downtime to upgrade their home theaters and subscribe to every cable channel and streaming service imaginable. Still, there’s really nothing quite like “going to the movies”: making an outing of it, discovering a new release in the company of other moviegoers, sharing reactions to its funny, tragic, joyous or poignant moments. I know I’m not alone in the Hudson Valley One community in feeling delighted to have such opportunities back, safely.
While the multiplexes began a phased reopening in late October, attendance was light, and there wasn’t much new product to screen. And our beloved local arthouses couldn’t open at all, on account of the costs of required technical upgrades, such as touchless ticketing systems and overhauling air-exchange infrastructure. Upstate Films in Rhinebeck went dark for 14 months.
Happily, that dearth has ended: Under new directorship (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2021/05/13/upstate-films-new-co-directors-have-big-plans-for-big-screens), Upstate reopened on June 18 – weekends only for now, with three films in current rotation and two more “Coming Soon.” I wanted to see them all, immediately. I compromised and saw two on opening weekend: Nomadland and In the Heights. The former having been available via streaming for a good while now, and swept up several 2020 Academy Awards in the process, I’ll be reviewing the latter.
How good it felt to return to this longtime haunt for mid-Hudson movie-lovers! The theater has been spruced up, in addition to the invisible improvements such as an upgraded HVAC system, but it’s still quite homey and recognizable. There are new carpets, a modernized lobby (with real-butter popcorn machine left intact, thankfully), big letters on the end of each row of seats so you can find your socially distanced spot easily in low light. The most noticeable change lies at your feet, right in front of the entrance: a brand-new mosaic that reads, “Upstate Films, Est. 1972,” topped by a star. Who needs Hollywood when you’ve got Rhinebeck?
In the Heights
One of those abovementioned moments of shared discovery happened at the climax of the eponymous opening number of In the Heights, just before the main title came up. “Wow,” said someone in the audience – speaking for all of us, pretty much. And then everyone applauded (as they did again at the end of the movie). It’s a knockout, high-energy Latin American song-and-dance routine featuring hundreds of performers in the streets of upper Manhattan. Remember the opener from La La Land, with people pouring from their cars stuck in traffic to dance on the freeway? Imagine something like that, only a whole lot less…white.
It doesn’t let up, though the musical has its slower-paced, more contemplative passages. The neighborhood of Washington Heights, as brought to life by composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Jon M. Chu, is as vivid a place as exists anywhere on Planet Earth, inhabited by a winning cast of characters whose struggles and conflicts are eased by a powerful community. They come from different countries – primarily the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba – but they have a sense of commonality that uplifts them all, in the face of gentrification that threatens to tear their neighborhood apart. Dance and music are the languages in which that spirit is expressed.
You may have heard of some controversy swirling around the casting of this new movie version of Miranda’s first big hit play, which hit Broadway in 2008 and won multiple Tony Awards. The charge is “colorism”: The vast majority of the cast are light-skinned Latinx actors, not representational of the mainly Dominican population of present-day Washington Heights, who tend to have some African ancestry. Miranda himself has acknowledged that it’s a real issue. The script rewrite for the big screen also removes one of the original play’s big points of conflict: Kevin (Jimmy Smits), the owner of a taxi service, disapproves of his daughter Nina’s (Leslie Grace) romance with one of his employees, Benny (Corey Hawkins), because Benny is black and does not speak Spanish. The tension that exists in the Latinx community over relative shades of skin color gets glossed over in this iteration.
To compensate, perhaps, and make the Obama-era story somewhat timelier 13 years later, the issue of the imperiled legal status of immigrants is brought to the forefront – which also fleshes out the role of Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who can’t qualify for a college scholarship because he’s undocumented. Sonny is the younger cousin of the protagonist, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs a bodega but dreams of moving back to his native island to reconstruct his late father’s beachfront bar, destroyed in a hurricane. Usnavi and Sonny were both raised by Doña Claudia (Olga Merediz), an older Cuban immigrant with no children of her own who is the adopted abuela to every kid on the block.
Everyone in the barrio, it seems, has a sueñito – a little dream. Usnavi is in love with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in a beauty shop but wants to become a clothing designer and move downtown. Benny wants to be an entrepreneur on his own. Nina, the smartest kid in the neighborhood, is envied for having “made it out,” but is now back, having dropped out of an unwelcoming Stanford University. For most, money is the biggest obstacle. And when Usnavi finds out that an unidentified customer has bought a winning lottery ticket at his bodega, all those dreams coming spilling out in a blockbuster aquatic dance number filmed at the Highbridge Pool using 500 extras, complete with overhead shots of synchronized swimming à la a 1940s Esther Williams movie.
This sort of massive set piece is where Chu gets to cut loose. I was dubious about the choice of him as a director, having experienced his visual overindulgence in Crazy Rich Asians. But he got his start filming dance movies, and that predilection turned out to be appropriate for In the Heights. It’s tough to quibble overmuch about the inhabitants of this neighborhood not being black enough when you realize that there probably aren’t hundreds of them doing tightly choreographed dances in the streets on any given day, either. This isn’t real life.
In fact, Chu interpolates a fair few fantasy visual elements (perhaps we should say magic realism, given the Latin American context), some of which work beautifully – giant bolts of fabric cascading down the sides of tall buildings as Vanessa sings about her career ambitions, for example – and some of which don’t, such as cheesy dancing wigs in the beauty salon. There is a showstopper of a duo dance sideways up a building exterior that recalls Donald O’Connor’s gravity-defying antics in Singin’ in the Rain: proof, like the swimming pool number, that Chu genuinely loves Hollywood enough to want to outdo its excesses, subtlety be damned.
He has a fine, exceptionally talented cast to work with here. The two young female leads are relative unknowns in the US, but Grace is a fabulous singer, specializing in Dominican bachata, and Barrera a star of Mexican telenovelas. Merediz totally owns the pivotal role of Abuela Claudia, having portrayed her in both the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs. Usnavi is the role that Miranda originally wrote for himself, but he aged out of it; luckily, Ramos, who played the dual role of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton on Broadway, had experience with it from a production of In the Heights at the Kennedy Center in DC. He’s excellent. Miranda appears several times in the minor role of the piragüero, the street vendor of shaved-ice treats. And of course, Washington Heights is a major character, playing itself.
It’s no fluke that In the Heights won Lin-Manuel Miranda a Tony for Best Musical Score. The songs are stunning, propulsive, full of pure feeling, in contrast to the more clever and intellectual Hamilton. It’s a wonder to see and hear them realized on a big screen with all the tinsel and trickery of contemporary cinematography and sound behind them. This is one movie you won’t want to save for your living room.