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Curmudgeon’s Corner: “In the Heights” is the height of…

In the Heights
Credit: “George Washington Bridge” by eviltomthai is licensed under CC BY 2.0

My last posting in the foreign service was Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (DR). My assignment was as the public affairs officer in the American Embassy. I had previously served in Havana, Cuba in the same capacity so I was familiar with the Caribbean Spanish-speaking world.

The Dominican Republic is situated next door to Puerto Rico and shares the island with Haiti. The two countries have little in common and there is always a bit of tension between the two nations due to an on-going grudge the Dominicans harbor against Haiti when it occupied the DR for a period of time in the 19th Century. The occupation of the DR by Haiti influenced the racial mix and brought African rhythms to that side of the island which heretofore was rather staid.

Those influences in the long run added to the DR’s mixture of Hispanic, African, and native cultures prevalent today. Among these is the wonderful music inherent in the evolution of the DR’s history. When I arrived in the DR, I was exposed to the upbeat musical sounds of merengue, bachata and salsa (imported from Puerto Rico actually). As a result, I spent many enjoyable hours in the company of my Dominican friends either listening or learning to dance to these infectious melodies. When I left the DR two years later and retired in Washington, DC, I missed the music and sought out places in DC where Latino dance bands performed on weekends. I continued my love of the genre and spent many happy evenings dancing the night away. Of course, all of that came to a halt when I moved to New Bern where Latin music does not go over very well despite the local Shag being a great dance style full of exuberance similar to the merengue/salsa/bachata trio.

Hence, a couple of years ago I was excited to attend a musical performance of the Dominican inspired Broadway hit, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, “In the heights” put on by local singers and actors. The play was a huge success as the director and actors, as well as the live music, really captured the essence of the NYC theater performance. The only drawback to the stage presentation was that the space available to carry out the dance numbers was limited. That was remedied in a spectacular way in the recently released film version that I watched yesterday at the Bruin movie theater on Neuse Blvd. To say it is jaw dropping fabulous is not enough in my opinion. And, here’s why:

The director Jon M. Chu, whose credits include the breakthrough “Crazy Rich Asian,” and the choreographer Christian Scott (no relation alas) have created on the streets of Upper Manhattan, AKA The Heights, a jubilant tribute to the robust lives, loves and dreams of a beloved neighborhood. The film’s combination of music and dance bombard the senses from start to finish. The result can only be described as vibrant, colorful, and above all, highly creative. I was spellbound in my theater rocking chair snacking on a bag of popcorn—after a year or more of sitting it out at home—watching the dance scenes explode on the screen.

The choreographer and film editor combined their efforts to give me whiplash as I watched the incredible dancers on the wide screen do their thing. In one scene, in a swimming pool, Scott seems to be paying homage to Busby Berkeley’s movies from the 1930’s where dozens of pretty girls performed ballet like mass coordinated movements in kaleidoscope fashion. It blew my mind when I thought about all the great musical films I’ve watched in my life like, “West Side Story,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease,” “Dirty Dancing,” and so forth, that literally pale in comparison with Scott’s work. I have never experienced such a visceral involvement with on the screen dancers as I did watching this iconic film. I think history is being made with “In the Heights” because there is nothing in memory to compare it with. Maybe we should call it the “Citizen Kane” of musicals after all the boy genius Orson Wells, was in his late 20s when he filmed “Kane.” (Chu is only 41 and well on his way to become Hollywood’s newest and brightest director).

The story line is pretty good even though it’s cliché ridden mostly but what the heck, it flows along nicely and breaks up the penetrating over the top dance numbers and gives the viewer a moment to recoup. The actors include Jimmy Smitt whom I haven’t seen in a film for many years. Marc Anthony the famous singer, also from Puerto Rico, has a small role that adds little to the story. I guess the director offered him a bit-part out of respect for assembling a cast almost entirely composed of Hispanics.

The real treat is the multi-nationality dancer singers in the cast from all over Latin America. My favorite was the Mexican actor Melissa Barrera who plays Vanessa. When she’s on the screen you can’t take your eyes off of her. That said, all the other actors were obviously chosen for their charisma by Chu to keep the jaw dropping going. Anthony Ramos a New Yorker with PR roots does a magnificent job as Usnavi, the leitmotiv of the film. (His film name comes from when his father saw a US Navy ship docking and liked the name). Kudos has to go to the Cuban American Olga Merediz for her role as “Abuela.” At 65, she still has the chops to make you laugh and cry. Born to Dominican Parents in the Bronx, the gorgeous Leslie Grace as Rosario danced and sang her way into my heart.

As you can tell, I rate this movie among the best musicals ever made—which is saying a lot. It is bound to win a bunch of Oscars next year. At the very least, the choreography is astoundingly brilliant and nothing in my experience comes close.

You can catch it on HBO Max but it should be seen and enjoyed to the fullest on the big screen with plenty of ear drum crushing Latinos rhythms—which does not include the merengue, the DR’s national dance, for some unknown reason and my only small criticism of a masterpiece of movie making.

Email me with your thoughts.

See you down the road.

Jerry Scott