Talking About “In the Heights.” (or: Rolling Home)
Sometimes when I’m reviewing Thing A, I like to start with a review of Thing X first. It helps me to give context to what I want to say about Thing A, even if they may seem entirely unrelated. But today, as I give my non-spoiler first impression of the film “In the Heights,” I’m going to start out with something a little deeper than some simple piece of media I enjoy.
Let’s talk about Billy Joel.
If you’re new here, you may not see the immediate connection, and if you’ve been here a while you’re probably more surprised when I don’t find a way to include Billy Joel in a piece that I write. But what I want to talk about is why Billy Joel’s music holds such a deep connection for me. Why it’s so integral to who I am.
Because, as big of a superfan as I am, I’ll acknowledge easily that Billy Joel is not the best songwriter, not the best performer of all time. I don’t really think there is such a thing. I think there’s a tier, and while Billy Joel is certainly in that top tier, he’s not there by himself.
Change my circumstances slightly and maybe as a 12 year-old, I become obsessed with Carole King. Or Harry Chapin. Or Joni Mitchell. Or Paul Simon. There are plenty of top-tier songwriters out there, and any one of them would cause my whole life as a superfan to roll out in a different direction.
But I fell in love with the music of Billy Joel. And maybe there’s something about his voice, or his storytelling, or something that I identify with that I was always destined to navigate towards, but for whatever reason, he’s seeped into my soul. His music is a part of me. It’s comforting. It’s familiar. It’s home.
If he were to sit down today and write a new song I’d never heard before, a new song that he doesn’t even like, that doesn’t sound good, recorded with bad equipment, half-finished, sung a little off-key, mistakes in every verse, and then someone handed me that recording… I’d find something to love about it.
Even if I don’t like it. The patterns of sound that have so infused my life will guide my heart to find the familiar in what may be, objectively, a work of garbage. Because it would be a work of garbage from the mind that created so many works that I love.
There are so many little things about his writing, his singing, his voice, everything, that I’ve learned to love so deeply over the years, that even if he was trying to write garbage, he couldn’t hide all of the things I love about his music from me.
And, I mean, for me that’s an extreme example. But there’s lots of things out there that manage to seep into who we are. Whether or not we fully realize it.
So as I stepped into a movie theater for the first time in well over a year, sat down with my popcorn and my soda, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I experienced just a little bit of home before the movie even started. This familiar pattern of “get ticket, wait for concessions, stumble to the right theater, find your seat, arrange your belongings.” Oh yeah. “And silence your phone.” Is it weird to feel nostalgia towards silencing your phone?
And, I mean, listen, Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t quite as ingrained into me as Billy Joel is. But the Hamilton soundtrack got me through 2017, so his patterns are a part of me, too. And hearing his music just takes me back to that rented car, parked on Ft. Lauderdale Beach, switching the car stereo from Disc 1 to Disc 2 for the first time and feeling triumph turn to tragedy as I hear the rest of Alexander’s story.
But In the Heights, while following Lin-Manuel Miranda’s characteristic beats and pacing, isn’t really the same story. It’s more ensemble. It’s telling the story of a place rather than a person.
And that place is Washington Heights, New York. A part of town that’s mostly Hispanic. And, appropriately, most of the cast was Hispanic. Spanish peppered the dialog. Accents were everywhere. And I guess this is the part of home that caught me entirely off-guard.
See, if you meet me once, you’ll probably pick up that I’m American. If you have a deep enough conversation with me, it doesn’t take much for me to mention that I’m also Israeli. But I carry another identity with me, as well. Not as prominently. Not as confidently. But by virtue of heritage, Argentina is still a part of who I am. And growing up in South Florida, this fantastic soup of Caribbean and Latin American cultures, being around Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Colombians, Dominicans, Chileans… that’s a part of me that I’d forgotten about.
Until “In the Heights” reminded me.
About 20 minutes into the movie I started crying. At nothing, really. Just at the atmosphere that had been created. The different ways the movie already felt familiar, like a part of myself that I’d lost. I don’t consider myself Hispanic. I barely speak any Spanish, and I am very rusty even so. My Argentinian heritage, while ever-present, seems to always take a back seat to my Israeli heritage or to my American heritage.
But yet, several times in the last few months, I’ve found myself looking up old interviews of Desi Arnaz, old clips of I Love Lucy, and I found a place of comfort in that Cuban accent. It’s there, deep inside of me. It called out to Desi Arnaz, and then “In the Heights” reached into the core of who I am and drew it out through my tear ducts. It’s home. It’s a little piece of home.
And, yes, there were also parts of the film that reminded me more directly of Billy Joel. It’s a musical that’s set in New York and I have a borderline-unhealthy obsession with the man, that was just always going to happen.
But there’s so much personality in this movie. I’ll have to watch it again, or at least listen to the soundtrack. I suspect that, like Hamilton, this is a show that grabs you upfront, while also containing so much subtlety that the re-watch is even better than your first time. But I suppose I’ll have to wait until I re-watch it to know for sure.
All of which might sound like reasons that I enjoyed the experience, personally, which may not be transferrable to other viewers. But I assure you, on top of everything I’ve said, this is also the best musical to hit the cinema in decades. And, without giving too much away, the movie, itself, is about finding your home.
I think that, no matter what perspective you come into this movie with, you’ll find it drawing some facet of your own home out from you, as well. I think it just has that kind of charm.