Review of “En el barrio” (“In the Heights”), a film by Jon M. Chu based on the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda

In the neighborhood (In the Heights, United States 2021). Direction: Jon M. Chu. Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Jimmy Smits. Screenplay: Quiara Alegría Hudes, In the Heights full movie based on the musical, the songs and the lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Photography: Alice Brooks. Edition: Myron Kerstein. Distributor: Warner Bros. Duration: 143 minutes. In Argentine cinemas from Thursday 6/17 and on HBO Max from Friday 11.

In the northwest of Manhattan there is a neighborhood called Washington Heights with an immense majority of Latino population and, above all, Dominican (in fact, one area is known as the Little Dominican Republic). Lin-Manuel Miranda is from there (although his family is of Puerto Rican origin), who in 2007 premiered on off-Broadway (and the following year on Broadway) the musical In the Heights. The rest – including the Hamilton phenomenon – is already well known and today Miranda is an eminence in show business in the United States.

From the songs, the music and the ideas of Miranda, Jon M. Chu (curious about the choice of a family director … china!) Filmed In the neighborhood, greeted -to my taste with no little exaggeration- as a masterpiece by the vast majority of American critics. It is not that this new work by the director of Crazy Rich Asians lacks professionalism, insights and inspiration, but I think that in these times of political correctness and the search for greater diversity in the representation of Hollywood cinema its (excessive) praise fits perfectly.

In the neighborhood it has the classic structure of the musical (long choreographies of song and dance connected by brief links of “normal” parliaments) with a spirit of the fairy tale. There is in the innocence and good intentions of the protagonists (all young, beautiful and slender) something of forced exaltation. It is true that everything exudes sympathy, they sing and dance very well, but in this cut there is – beyond the celebration of Latin culture in general and Nuyoricua in particular – something of the order of advertising.

With a framed story (the protagonist will appear at the beginning, in several inerrate passages and at the end telling his story to some attentive children), En el barrio focuses on the misadventures of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos in the role that Miranda himself did about the scenarios), a boy of almost 30 who dreams of reopening his family’s El Sueñito bar in the Dominican Republic, a project that functions both as something aspirational and as a possible escape from his routine job of supporting a warehouse and coffee in one corner of Washington Heights.

Shy and insecure, Usnavi begins to babble and act awkwardly every time the stunning Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) appears in the business, a young woman who works in a beauty salon in the area but dreams of moving downtown and succeeding in the fashion world. The other important subplot stars Nina (Leslie Grace), a Puerto Rican girl who is determined to abandon her studies at Stanford to the despair of her father (Jimmy Smits), the owner of a taxi company who has spent what he did not. has to finance his university career, and that he meets again with Benny (Corey Hawkins), his ex-boyfriend.

There is, beyond the inevitable artifice of any musical, something at times genuine and commendable in the vindication and empowerment not only of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans but also of other communities such as Cuban or Mexican, with noble, pure and sweet characters, but thus as Hollywood cinema has exhausted us with stereotypical Latino characters (especially with drug traffickers), here the inspirational runs the opposite risk: falling into absolute idealization (we will see, in that sense, what will be the approach of Steven Spielberg in the imminent West Side Story).

Should I go or should I stay ?, The Clash wondered in 1982 and that is the main contradiction (in addition to the generational contradiction between grandparents / parents and children) that torments the characters in En el barrio. Going to fulfill certain dreams in the world (often hostile) or staying within the community and trying to grow in that area (often limiting).

There are creative and always playful choreographies that echo the classicism of Busby Berkeley and ideas (like a long blackout in the middle of summer) that work very well. In fact, the almost two and a half hours of storytelling are never overwhelming, but En el barrio, with its sugary and sentimental excesses, finds what for my taste are its limitations in its own “ideological” conception rather than in its attractive and well-cared invoice.

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