Lin-Manuel Miranda is, and probably will always be, best known for his ground-breaking and Tony-awarding winning Broadway musical, Hamilton. But before that juggernaut, Miranda made another musical about life in the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City.
Originally scheduled as far back as 2008, Miranda & Universal Studios wanted this project made, but Hamilton’s Broadway stage debuted, that whole Weinstein fiasco happened, there were casting dilemmas, and Covid delayed it all. Finally, Lin-Manuel’s vision is on the screen, and it’s a long, long musical extravaganza shot in and around the streets of NYC. Very much like the Broadway musical, Rent, almost all the dialogue here is sung, as we start off with our narrator, Usnavi delaVega (Anthony Ramos) telling some children about three very special days in his life.
In his close-knit neighborhood where everyone knows everyone, Usnavi runs a corner mini-market with his hip young cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). But Usnavi has a dream, like everyone else there on the block. His is to go back to the Dominican Republic and reopen his late father’s beach shack. But, his dreams will have to wait, as money is tight. Meanwhile, we greet the others and see (hear) their dreams: there’s prodigal daughter & Stanford college dropout Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) who’s struggling father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), runs the local cab company. Kevin lives vicariously through Nina, as he’s never had the education she’s had, but Nina just wants to live in the barrio.
Then there’s Kevin’s stalwart employee, Benny (Corey Hawkins) who has the hots for Nina, but can’t seem to gain any ground with her. Across the street, there’s a long-time hair & nail salon that’s closing, but employee Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) has dreams of being a fashion designer and moving uptown. She sorta-kinda likes Usnavi, but the two aren’t connecting. There’s also the traveling Piragua guy (a Puerto Rican shaved ice treat), played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is being usurped by a mean Mr. Softee ice cream man (Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson). While all this is going on, someone has won the $96K lottery, but nobody knows who it is.
As the multiple stories are going on, two major events collide: a city-wide blackout and Usnavi’s ‘Abuela’ Claudia (Olga Merediz) throwing a party for Usnavi and his street family. Credit the screenplay to playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, who adapted her own Broadway book and weaved a rich, beautiful, and colorful tapestry of ethnic life in the barrio without the usual stereotypes or tropes. Miranda wrote the extraordinary music, which is heightened by the dazzling and eye-popping choreography of Christopher Scott (Step Up Revolution, TV’s So You Think You Can Dance?) who delivers mesmerizing dance numbers.
But what’s surprising is the glorious direction of Jon M. Chu who, up until now, had only directed Crazy Rich Asians, and the forgettable films, G.I. Joe Retaliation and Jem and the Holograms. He did manage to direct several Justin Beiber music videos and a few Step Up movies, but this? This level of direction and scale is on par with Gene Kelly’s Hello Dolly! or Carol Reed’s Oliver! It has grandiose written all over it, and the fact it was shot outside on the NYC streets and not on a sound stage, adds to the credibility.
Anthony Ramos, who starred in Hamilton, is essentially a younger version of Miranda, as he talks and sings exactly like the mega-star. Needless to say, the kid’s a natural. The entire cast is excellent and can sing & dance effortlessly, and boy! Is there ALOT of that!! At a butt-numbing 2hrs and 22 minutes, it does tend to get a bit exasperating, as the stories have a tendency to drag on. But you cannot deny the energy the cast gives off in the dance numbers, which are plentiful. The song & dance, “96,000” in the pool area is drop-dead impressive and would make Busby Berkeley blush, as are many others like “In The Heights“, “Blackout“, and “Carnaval del Barrio“. Definitely worth seeing!
**Now showing in the theaters AND streaming on HBOMax
If I Had A Million (1932)
Have you ever fantasized about what it would be like to be a million dollars richer? Sure ya have! But in 1932, a million bucks was worth a lot more than today’s dollars. In this multiple story line movie (like Twilight Zone: the movie), each story has its own writer & director, quite the novelty for 1932!
This unusual dramedy starts with a dying tycoon named John Glidden (Richard Bennett) who can’t decide what to do with his wealth. His advisors tell him he must give it to his greedy relatives or his company, but he despises both. He finally decides to give seven random people out of the phone book, $1 million each from his remaining $7 million. What happens next is seven stories of the recipients, the $1 million they get, and what they do with it. Some stories are happy, some are sad, but each one has its own flavor and texture, thanks to seven different directors who direct each individual tale.
Some tales are shorter than others; some recipients are even visited by the dying Glidden to see where his money has gone to, sort of like TV’s Undercover Boss. Example: There’s the “China Shop” episode where a henpecked salesman (Charlie Ruggles) goes crazy and wreaks destruction at his work after receiving the $1 million check in the mail. A barroom prostitute named Violet Smith (Wynne Gibson) who, after receiving her check simply goes to bed, all alone. You have the great George Raft as a lifetime forger who, after getting his check, tries to cash it, but nobody will believe that his check is real, given his criminal history. In the end, he just burns the check to light a cigar.
In one of my favorite episodes called “Road Hogs”, two ex-vaudeville performers (Alison Skipworth and W.C. Fields) have finally scrimped and saved enough to buy a brand-new car. The moment they drive the car out off the lot, it’s broadsided by another car and totaled. Once receiving their check, however, they purchase eight new cars and go on an epic road-rage of unparalleled destruction, smashing into other drivers who flaunt the law in their eyes. Leaving a path of destroyed cars behind them, they gleefully hop into one of their other cars, and drive away to seek out another scofflaw!
Another favorite is Charles Laughton as Phineas V. Lambert, a bespectacled, shy little mousy clerk in a massive business office. When he gets his check he silently gets up, goes to the president of the company, knocks on his door, and then blows a raspberry at his boss! Short and hilarious! The final story is Mary Walker (May Robson), a scared, elderly woman consigned to a horrible rest home run by a tyrannical Mrs. Garvey (Blanche Friderici). The residents there are unhappy, told when to eat, went to sleep, and are like prisoners held against their will. When Mary’s check arrives, she turns the table on the owners, forcing them to be prisoners of HER new rest home! The nasty old staff is forced to sit in rocking chairs all day, while the elderly eat cake, play with cats, and party all day!
There were an astonishing 16 writers (!!!) and eight directors from iconic Ernst Lubitsch to prolific Norman Taurog that all played a part in the making of this highly entertaining movie and, unlike today where 16 writers would be a death sentence, this film was well regarded and made money. And oh! The stars that were in this! Besides Fields, Laughton, and Raft, you also had Gary Cooper, Jack Oakie, Roscoe Karns, and more. If you get a chance, rent or stream this movie!