Film Watch Weekly: “In the Heights,” Rita Moreno, and Sparks bring the tunes

Movie music's in the air with a trio of new releases, from a celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda story to a little-known tale of two brothers

Music is in the air, even if the wait for live performances drags agonizingly on. (Get vaccinated, people!) Three new movies offer toe-tapping tributes to, respectively, a cult favorite brother act, a multi-talented performing legend, and a certain New York City neighborhood beloved by the creator of Hamilton.

A scene from the new movie version of “In the Heights.”

Last things first, then: In the Heights is the long-anticipated film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning, name-making stage musical. It’s a joyful, exuberant kaleidoscope of life in the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, following a variety of characters through a few eventful days, leading to a foreshadowed and climactic blackout.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) works in a bodega while pining for his childhood memories of the Dominican Republic. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the object of Usnavi’s affection, dreams of being a fashion designer. Nina (Leslie Grace) returns home from her studies at Stanford, ambivalent about whether she belongs there. Her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), runs a small local taxi service and, like the rest of the neighbors, sees Nina as the best of them.

The highlight of the musical numbers is “$96,000,” which is staged Busby Berkeley-style at an outdoor pool, as various cast members sing about what they’d do with the winning lottery ticket that was purchased at Usnavi’s store. Miranda, who played Usnavi in the original 2005 production, has a nice cameo as the Piragüero, lamenting that his shaved-ice pushcart is being rivaled by the despised Mister Softee. And the emotional core of the story is provided by “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Meridiz), the elderly matriarch of the community, who reminisces about her childhood in Cuba.

Dreams and memories, community and identity, and even a bit of politics, are intertwined with the melodrama, comedy, and razzle-dazzle. The play has been updated to include the realities of DACA and the threats to the Dreamers, and any story dealing with Spanish-speaking immigrants emits an amplified resonance in the (hopefully) post-Trump era.

Unlike Hamilton: The Movie, however, In the Heights is not a straightforward filmed performance—it’s a full-on movie musical. And that’s where some of its problems emerge. Director John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) has a hard time knowing when to let his camera come to rest and simply observe the energy of the performers. It’s passé by now to decry MTV-style rapid-fire editing, but it’s especially problematic when translating dance from stage to screen. Classic movie musical moments tend to create the impression that we’re watching a continuous performance in an actual three-dimensional space, and that rootedness in reality is too often missing here.

That said, it’s still a worthwhile experience, whether at home on HBO Max, or in a theater. (I opted for the former, still not quite ready to get myself to a multiplex.) A controversy has emerged since the film’s release having to do with the lack of darker-skinned Latinx actors in the cast. It’s factually true, and it’s easy to see how this imbalance can be seen as the continuation of skin tone-based assumptions that have plagued portrayals of people of color for decades. Miranda has apologized for the discrepancy, and it’s not a fatal flaw in the film by any stretch. But the discussion serves to highlight the work that still needs to happen as well as the progress that has been made. For the latter, look no further than the next paragraph. (Playing at area theaters and on HBO Max)

Rita Moreno in the United States Senate in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”

The heart of Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is a candid, engaging interview with the woman who became the third person to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony—and the first ever Latinx EGOT recipient. In her late 80s, Moreno is as sharp and energetic as ever as she discusses her epic career trajectory and her personal struggles.

Having emigrated from Puerto Rico to New York as a small child with her mother, Moreno worked her way into the film industry in the 1950s, generally in small, stereotypical roles where she was “barefoot and dark skinned.” She jokes in the documentary that she used one accent to play women of various nationalities, but that her directors never knew the difference.

Her breakthrough came, of course, in West Side Story, but after winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she didn’t make another film for seven years. Moreno talks openly about her turbulent relationship with Marlon Brando during these years, including her ensuing pregnancy and abortion, as well as her mental health challenges. It was Brando who convinced her to return to the screen, opposite him in the 1968 clunker Night of the Following Day. (That movie was recently released on Blu-ray with a very interesting audio commentary track from film historian Tim Lucas, for what it’s worth.)

The documentary follows Moreno as she continues to work in 2019 on the Netflix sitcom One Day at a Time, the producer of which, Normal Lear, is among those who testify to Moreno’s talent and tenacity. Others include Lin-Manuel Miranda and Morgan Freeman, her co-star on The Electric Company. I still remember how shocking it was to realize that the cartoonish character bellowing “Hey you guys!” on that goofy kids’ show was also a legendary, award-winning performer. Such staggering diversity of roles indicates either sheer randomness or true integrity at work. Here it’s assuredly the latter. (Playing at Cinema 21)

Everybody’s heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Rita Moreno, but only a select few are familiar with the esoteric, enigmatic duo known as Sparks. I was not among the enlightened before watching the worshipful documentary The Sparks Brothers, directed by superfan Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver).

Brothers Ron and Russell Mael in director Edgar Wright’s film “The Sparks Brothers,”a Focus Features release. Image: Anna Webber / Focus Features

Sparks is the brainchild of brothers Russell and Ron Mael (hence the doc’s title). Russell’s the handsome lead singer, while Ron is the primary songwriter who scowlingly plays keyboards while sporting a Chaplin (not Hitler!) moustache. The band’s style has evolved, sometimes abruptly, over the decades since they were discovered by Todd Rundgren in 1971. They spent so much time living and touring in Britain that many assumed they were English, rather than Southern Californian.

They’ve been pranksters and provocateurs, chameleons and peacocks, but what they’ve never really been is popular, at least not on a mass level. The appeal is not dissimilar to that of the cult band Ween (which purports to be a pair of brothers), but with fewer guitar solos and more theatrical wryness. With both Maels in their 70s, Sparks are finally having something of a breakthrough moment: In addition to this documentary, they’ve written the songs for the upcoming musical Annette by French director Leos Carax, which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and will be the opening film at this summer’s Cannes Film Festival. (It’ll open in the U.S. in August.) Previous filmic collaborations between the brothers and directors Jacques Tati and Tim Burton never came to fruition, so the hotly anticipated Annette may prove to be a fitting capstone to a fiercely independent career. (Playing at Cinema 21, the Laurelhurst Theater, and other area theaters)

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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