Watching In the Heights can only really be described as “visceral.” Here is a movie (based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular Broadway production) about nice people, singing and dancing through the streets of New York City. Well, more accurately, Washington Heights, located in the northwestern part of Manhattan. It’s a movie that’s just so alive. And it’s impossible to watch this movie and not think about what this city has gone through over the last year. I kept thinking about a year ago when the streets were empty and there was a collective fear that hung over the city like smog. I know there were days where the sun was shining, but when I think back in my memories, it’s always cloudy. If In the Heights had still come out last year, it would have felt like science fiction.
So it’s fitting Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights became the first movie I saw in a theater after roughly 14 months. (Well, technically, a small screening room, but close enough.) Because it really does feel like a movie that arrives saying, “Welcome back, New York City. In a few weeks, life can be like this again.” Of course, it’s more than that, it’s a movie welcoming everyone back that doesn’t feel forced and phony like, say, those psychotic, “Welcome back, America,” Applebee’s commercials from last July. Or even what Tenet was trying to do, forcing itself into theaters long before there was an available vaccine just because. Every huckster with something to sell would tell you the pandemic was “over” as thousands of people died every day. But this one feels real. Rates are dropping. Millions of Americans have the vaccine. People are very much on the streets again. Though no one has broken out in a highly choreographed song and dance yet, at least that I’ve witnessed. But, at this point, I won’t be surprised when it happens. Every day that has passed since I saw this movie a couple of weeks ago, it really feels like we are inching that much closer to a full street party. New York City feels “back” and In the Heights has arrived to announce this fact with authority.
I digress. Look, In the Heights is a slice of life movie that certainly didn’t ask to have the weight of “bringing the world back” on its shoulders. It’s funny, I remember when I saw In the Heights in a theater, when it was just starting its Broadway run, and the big question was how would such a small off-Broadway production make the leap to Broadway? And now, 13 years later, it’s a major motion picture and will forever be remembered as the first big feel-good movie back in theaters.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, playing the role Lin-Manuel Miranda originated) wants out of his neighborhood. He dreams of the beaches of the Dominican Republic where he lived as a little kid. If you don’t know the plot or aren’t familiar with the Broadway show, it’s not the easiest thing to describe “the plot” because the magic of this story is the intersecting and weaving of all the characters as they leave and return to the neighborhood. And Usnavi slowly realizing and questioning why he even wants to leave so badly in the first place – and then everything culminating during a citywide blackout. It’s a story about love and community and sticking together during the hard times and celebrating the good times. It’s a movie that was filmed before the pandemic ever happened, but a lot of the lessons ring true: when things go south, all we really have is each other.
I haven’t written these words in a long time, but if you’re vaccinated: see In the Heights in a theater. See it with a crowd that will applaud every song and showstopping dance number. And there are a lot of them. This is a movie that’s just, again, alive. It’s a movie that really does feel like a preview of this summer as more and more people become vaccinated. It’s a movie that feels like hope as actual hope stares us smack in the face. We are almost there. In the Heights didn’t ask for this responsibility, but it will forever be remembered as the right movie for the right time. It’s the kind of movie that will make you want to dance in the streets. And after this year we’ve all had, we all deserve to have our moment dancing in the street.
‘In The Heights’ will be in theaters and on HBO Max on June 11th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.