I’m thinking of the song from West Side Story — ‘America’ — where the women in flowing knee-length dresses and strapping heels sing of New York as this city on the hill — Cadillacs, open apartments, terraces — and Puerto Rico as the island they left behind, thankfully, hopefully forever. The men retort in music, tired of the racism in mainland America, the doors slammed shut on their faces, wondering when they can go back to San Juan, to the cheering crowds of home. You recognize that perhaps love for the “mother-land” can be seen in gendered terms. The women looking forward in hope and looking back in horror, and the men, looking forward in exhaustion and looking back in nostalgia (Why this is so, one can surmise many reasons. I put forth a theory — that when labour is gendered, so will aspirations). In between these two, the present is a forgotten thing, lulled by the past, pulled by the future.
The same division is there, somewhat gendered, in In The Heights. Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos (named after his father saw ‘US Navy’ printed on a ship, thinking it sounded exquisite and American), wants to go back to the Dominican Republic to resurrect the house of his late father, now rusted, the roof on the floor from the roving, recurring hurricanes — also something the women of West Side Story are happy to be away from. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the girl he loves, wants to ride the Nueva York (It’s not New York, it’s always Nueva York here) train to the city-proper, away, to make it big as a fashion designer. Neither understands why the other is after what they are, and in a moment of ecstatic music, Usnavi raps, “I’m running to make it home, And home’s where Vanessa’s running away from.”
Home. What is it? Part of the movie is reaching out to it, as part of it keeps trying to define what it even is. There is a rattling, shrieking quality to this pursuit because it feels like something dreamt up. A dream that no character is willing to pop. No one is a villain here, or even a circumstantial realist. It’s all air castles. That’s the point, you might say. But an illusion can only last so long if the fuel of spectacle starts to sag.
It’s summer in Washington Heights and we are informed, via text on-screen, that there is going to be a blackout, and everyone’s sweating, heaving bodies come and go in dances. Characters are introduced — Abuela (Olga Merediz), Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who is selling his office space to pay the tuition of his daughter, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), studying at Stanford, and Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s young and confident cousin. The blackout itself comes and goes without an impact, undeserving of the screen-text.
Soon, the large heartedness of this world, punctuated regularly by music penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, begins to feel like a crutch, because the emotions either get buried or waylaid.
There is a reason for this. The film never lets up, constantly injecting situations with up-beat music. The scenes don’t breathe but heave, and so scenes don’t crescendo since they are already cresting high on drama and music. Nothing dramatic — not even death — registers in the way it should. The highs of love, affection, adoration, adulation, all strike the same pitch of euphoria — the same pitch of watching a well choreographed, pumping dance sequence. Christopher Scott, the man behind the moves for two of the Step Up films, is the choreographer here. Usnavi and Vanessa’s love has this washed out, lazy quality where nothing erotic, sensuous, or even striking happens. When they fight, it doesn’t feel final, when they part, it doesn’t feel final, and so when they grasp each other in love, even that doesn’t feel final.
This is not to say there is no joy, because there’s plenty to go round the table thrice, and room to spare. There is a dance sequence in the pool that morphs into a dance of sequins as you look through a rotating kaleidoscope. There are bales of CGI fabric that roll down the buildings of Washington Heights as Vanessa sings. There is even a very handsy dance in the club where your dance partner places their hand on the nape of your neck, rotating you around, hand on hips, again and again. But either because of the lacking drama in the camera, or the inability of the camera or the edit to hold a shot, little makes you want to pause and go back.
Soon, the large heartedness of this world, punctuated regularly by music penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, begins to feel like a crutch, because the emotions either get buried or waylaid. This isn’t helped by the good-faith plotting — there’s such a kind quality to the conflicts here, you wonder if they ever are conflicts. Even the anchoring plot-point — the city wide blackout — is solved by music.
Washington Heights is a home in the slam-poetry sense of it — without nuance, without rancour, without pushback, lent easily to rhetoric, musical interludes, and rousing hurrahs. This is not a criticism per-se, as much as a characterization. But the 2 hour 20 minute run-time makes this home too sugar-coated, and frankly, at times, too boring, to be worth our sustained awe. Racism happens elsewhere — in Stanford where you are searched or mistaken for a server at a dinner meant to celebrate you. Busy, burned out people who snap at your shoulders without apologizing happens elsewhere — in “New York” city. There is no hint of the police. Washington Heights begins to feel too incubated, and the initial surge of affection I had for it waned with each increasingly thin song about home and love. Awe must be sustained if it is the only thing between spectacle and simplicity. Some dialogues — “Let me listen to my block” — don’t help. But then they raise their hands and coordinate steps and songs, reeking of home and hope, and you forget, for a moment, that this isn’t as good as it needs to be.