Today I praised the In the Heights movie to someone who hadn't heard of it.
They pulled out their phone and told me the film's Rotten Tomatoes ratings: 96% positive for critics, 95% positive for viewers.
I said, "I'm surprised it wasn't 100%."
In the Heights is that good.
My wife and I watched it at home via our HBO Max subscription. It's showing at Regal Willamette Town Center and Regal Santiam here in Salem, plus the Independence Theater.
It looked and sounded fine on our TV. I'm sure it would look and sound even better on a really big screen.
But be warned.
It's a musical. Some people, mostly men I suspect, have an aversion to musicals. However, In the Heights isn't a traditional musical, assuming that word -- traditional -- has any meaning these days.
It's a musical in the style of Hamilton. Which isn't surprising, since Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music and lyrics for a Broadway production of In the Heights before he created Hamilton.
So the basic rhythms are rap, hip-hop, and Latin. The movie is set in the largely Dominican community of Washington Heights in New York City.
I loved the sense of community that permeates the entire movie.
Which, by the way, doesn't have any bad guys/gals. No evil-doers. Nobody to boo.
It's that rare movie where 100% of the characters are positive people, all trying to do their best in a world that puts up barriers to them because of their heritage and circumstances.
Since I'm so used to movies that feature the main characters overcoming the malevolent actions of others, it took a while for me to settle in to watching In the Heights without the expectation of "something bad is about to happen."
Sure, there are problems people face. That comes with being human. The only tension in the movie arises from wondering how the main characters will deal with their problems.
Since it's a musical, problem-solving involves a lot of singing and dancing. And since it's a Latino-themed movie, often the singing and dancing has a salsa-like flavor.
I live on ten acres in rural south Salem. I grew up in a very small California town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. I've never lived anywhere that bears a resemblance to the highly urban Washington Heights.
But In the Heights made me wish I could experience the warmth, neighborliness, energy, joy, and passion of the diverse community that's the centerpiece of the movie.
Yes, it's an idealized picture of a few blocks in Washington Heights. Everybody gets along. No gangs. No trash. No violence. No police. No traffic jams.
A summer power outage during a really hot spell is the worst thing that besets the community. And it doesn't take long before people are back to dancing and singing their way through this challenge.
What kept going through my mind as I watched In the Heights is what a city like Salem (Oregon), where I live, misses by having a semi-small-town feel throughout most of the urban area. We do have a downtown.
However, there's no singing and dancing in the streets, aside from a few special occasions each year. Mostly our sidewalks are nearly empty. If someone started playing salsa music and invited passers-by to dance along, there'd be few takers almost everywhere in Salem.
Again, I realize that In the Heights isn't a depiction of real life. Still, the sense of community among the mostly Latino population felt decidedly genuine. This isn't something that can be packaged, sadly.
It's a natural result of people living in close proximity to each other who share a cultural heritage that encourages openness, communal eating and drinking, celebrating joys and supporting each other in sorrows.
An NPR interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes ends this way:
I want to finally ask about the timing of this movie because it's going to be among the first wave of summer films to open in theaters as the pandemic is slowly winding down. How do you think that timing might shape how people take in this story?
Miranda: I think it's enormously poignant. We filmed this in the summer of 2019 before the pandemic hit. And I know when I see a picture of two people standing close together, I've been marked by this — "Are they OK? Are they vaxxed? Is this all right?"
And this movie is such a love letter to the power of being in community with each other, of being out on the curb, of hugging, of dancing together. It is such a reminder of the power of that. I'm really hopeful that it's giving folks a reminder of how we used to be and how we can hopefully one day be again.