In the Heights was the first movie I bought a ticket for after getting vaccinated. I’d been back to the movies before, sparse screenings with my colleagues taking notes, but crossing that magic barrier between hallway and theater hadn’t yet recaptured the feeling of a cinematic airlock. Walking through the last in a series of concentric portals—from home to train to multiplex to auditorium—and settling into the darkness with a group of friends ready to whisper-judge a series of trailers, I found a film that’s characters and aesthetic serendipitously empathized with comfortable cages and the promises just beyond their bars. Yearning protagonists are nothing new to musicals, but In the Heights’ investment in juxtaposing isolation and connection particularly resonates with me as I reacclimate to my city.
Director Jon M. Chu implemented plenty of classic Hollywood musical influences into his adaptation of In the Heights—from the Busby Berkeley pool extravaganza to the gravity-defying Royal Wedding riff—but none hit me harder than the nods to Meet Me in St. Louis.
“I was inspired by Meet Me in St. Louis,” Chu explained, “especially the framing of that film, in the Usnavi shot of him being trapped in his bodega.” That shot, one of many that cinematographer Alice Brooks enhances with a creative use of reflection, comes early in the movie’s first number (about seven minutes into the video below).
The 20-second shot tightens on Anthony Ramos’ face through a glass window stocked with Jumex and sandwich ads, dancers ripping through choreography on the street just outside. “The world spins around while I’m frozen to my seat,” he laments. I get that. We all get that. Originally intended to represent that dead-end daily grind shared by workers everywhere and the discontent of the dreams buried in the drudgery, its meaning is enhanced for an audience that’s either been stuck working at home or locked into a routine prioritizing work over leisure more than ever before. My year of vicarious living (mostly comfort-food binge-watches) was just as thin and unsatisfying as the soft, ghostly secondhand dance wreathing Ramos; just as needy as Judy Garland strolling towards the open window during “The Boy Next Door.”
Her lingering lean, resting her head on the frame, grabbing her own arm to remind herself that she still exists despite being absent from that dumb boy next door’s brain—Garland is a ball of want throughout the song. Even Garland’s mid-song retreat to the mirror captures a sense of fantastical desire. It’s her looking through yet another gateway, another reality where she is seen as she’d like to be seen.
Ramos’ loving looks at polaroids of his father’s bar and his reverence of the Dominican Republic map on the bodega’s back wall are similar manifestations—simultaneously nostalgic for childhood and forward-looking to an ambitious adulthood. These 2-D memory-dreams are made immediately physical by the film’s production design. Complimenting Usnavi’s yearning like the lush interiors of the Smith family home in St. Louis (also afflicted with “psychogeographical unease,” as the New Yorker calls it), they are anchors defining his inherited present and (perhaps) future. “It’s all about the legacy they left for me,” Usnavi says. “It’s destiny.”
It’s hard not to relate to the rhyming images in these “I Want” songs. Under lockdown, I wanted nothing more than to burst into my local coffeeshop with full Jimmy Smits swagger. I wanted to joyfully rejoin my community, blockaded by barriers both invisible and physical, after a yearlong stretch of isolation broken only by summer protests. To traverse the architectural portals of Chicago—be they the 60-foot metal Puerto Rican flags bookending Paseo Boricua, their familiar towering archways beckoning a few blocks from my apartment, or the Chinatown Gate teasing me with dim sum and karaoke—and break from the familiar cocoon of weighted blankets and simmering anxiety waiting for me inside.
As the city reopens and I dip my toe back into its waters (dogsitting for neighbors; shooting pool at a dive), In the Heights captures that transition in its idealized-yet-struggling urban romance. After moving through doors, gates, and storefront shutters—and those all across the barrio do the same—the opening scene culminates with Usnavi leaving his bodega, becoming immersed in his neighborhood on such a granular level that, as the crane comes in on the final shot, it’s initially unclear if he’s actually in there dancing with the crowd. But he is, busting his ass just like everyone else, stories inherently intertwined.
This resumption of connection is present throughout the film. Nina (Leslie Grace) realizes that looking towards the next generation is how she can shake imposter syndrome and recontextualize the pressures and weight of her community’s expectations. It requires her to get out of her own head—literalized by her younger self dancing throughout her songs—and empathize with a larger group at a protest for DACA. Vanessa’s (Melissa Barrera) impulse to get the hell out of Dodge, to design fashions from the confines of a lonely new place downtown, is tamped down by creative block—only lifted by walking through Washington Heights. The ultimate collapse of the film’s framing device is a formal version of this same idea, dissolving desperate escapism into optimistic realities.
These dreamers’ sueñitos are constantly adapting—not compromised, but refined around each person’s needs and how they fit into their environment—something many of us went through as we planned our returns to the world. Was 2021 going to have the summer of club makeouts? As entertaining as the extreme pendulum swing was to speculate about, it quickly became clear that I didn’t need a bumpin’ and grindin’ post-vax bacchanal. I wasn’t going to reinvent myself. All I needed was a regular board game night, a dinner party here and there, a cheap beer and a warm tamale, a packed movie theater.
My theater wasn’t full for In the Heights, but it was far more populated than my living room’s been when I’ve watched every movie I’ve seen for the past year. I heard chuckles and sniffles and the slightest hint of a tapping toe. Wrappers crinkled as fingers searched for the last M&M and ice shuffled its formation around the last dregs of soda. After the credits rolled, the buzz of conversation echoed in the parking garage and down the street. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to share something good. In the Heights celebrates the closeness that makes living in a city so vibrant and vital, at a time when those barriers impeding that closeness are finally falling away—and now that it’s helped bring me beyond the windowframe, there’s no going back.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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