Lin-Manuel Miranda's music and artistry propel Netflix's 'Vivo' to soaring heights - MrLiambi's blog


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Friday 6 August 2021

Lin-Manuel Miranda's music and artistry propel Netflix's 'Vivo' to soaring heights

Vivo (Miranda) and Gabi (Simo) make for a charmingly adorable and hilarious buddy duo.

Who tells your story?

Lin-Manuel Miranda can't get away from that question. It's the running undercurrent of In the Heights, Miranda's Broadway breakout-turned-lush and lively HBO Max blockbuster. And of course he asks that question explicitly in the hit show Hamilton's final number, leaving the audience to ponder how one's legacy is shaped.

Miranda returns to that theme anew in Vivo, a colorful, salsa music-inflected Netflix adventure from Sony Pictures Animation. Ostensibly a buddy comedy about a kinkajou (Miranda) who teams up with a kid (Ynairaly Simo) to fulfill a beloved family member's dying wish, as the layers peel back we see Miranda, who wrote the bulk of the movie's music, revisiting his favored theme.

Our kinkajou, Vivo, is a singing-and-dancing cutie pie busker in Havana who is left alone in the world after the death of his friend and guitar-strumming musical partner Andrés (Juan de Marcos González, of Buena Vista Social Club fame). But before that tragic evening, Vivo learns that Andrés has been living with an unfulfilled wish: He never told his former bandmate Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan) the true depth of his feelings for her.

Andrés even wrote a song about it. Sadly, he never did play it for Marta before they parted in their youth, and he died just as a chance to right that wrong finally presented itself. It's up to Vivo, then, to ensure his friend's story ends as it should have by ferrying the precious page of lyrics and sheet music from Havana to Miami, where Marta is preparing for her final performance.

There's just one problem: Vivo may sing and dance and speak to us, the audience, but to the rest of the world he's just an adorably chittering kinkajou. That's where the aforementioned kid enters the picture: Gabi (Simo) is a spunky and rhythmically challenged Gen Z spitfire who happens to be moving with her widowed mom from Cuba to Florida. She's also Andrés' grandniece.

Who tells your story? Lin-Manuel Miranda can't get away from that question.

The two may not understand each other's words, but they make beautiful music together, literally, when circumstances lead to them teaming up on a mission to reach Marta in Miami. Gabi has her own deeply personal connection to music and loss driving her forward, and she's also better equipped to help the kinkajou get by in a human world.

The touching story of their shared journey â€" seriously, keep tissues handy â€" comes alive around Miranda's music. Fans of his earlier work will instantly recognize the rapid-fire lyricism and heady fusion of Latin rhythms, hip-hop beats, and pulsing EDM with the soaring melodic spectacle of musical theater.

A number like "Keep the Beat," one of the few cuts from the soundtrack released ahead of the movie, is vintage Miranda. It might be sonically out of place in his other works that explored similar themes, but song's overall structure and melodic makeup clearly bears Miranda's signature.

On the distant other end of the spectrum is "My Own Drum," a soundtrack standout and absolute banger that fuses the bouncing marching band energy reminiscent of Beyoncé's Homecoming: The Live Album with the quirky individuality that defines Gabi as a character. This one is Simo's performance, top to bottom, and while the young actor contributes plenty of emotion during song-free scenes, "My Own Drum" gives her musical talents a place to shine.

There is much to be said, too, for the script from Quiara Alegría Hudes based on a story by High School Musical writer Peter Barsocchini. It's a perfect team-up for Miranda, since Hudes also wrote the book for In the Heights on stage.

Vivo's heart-wrenching emotional beats hit as hard as they do because the cast is filled with some infectiously lovable characters. The ones not named Vivo or Gabi are mostly relegated to subplots, but even bit players fill the story with rich texture that goes beyond giving the starring duo something to play off of. Everyone's got layers that are peeled away as they play their part in this quest to see Andrés' song delivered. Like a good musical, those small contributions are additive, leading to a climax that crescendos in a beautiful display of emotion and music.

There's also plenty of humor. This is, without a doubt, a funny movie. Gabi and Vivo only ever communicate directly through song, but there's enough of a connection between them for a patter to develop outside the musical numbers. That leaves tons of space for hilarious one-liners, often uttered by a puzzled Vivo who simply cannot with Gabi's boundless energy and unshakeable joie de vivre.

The moving story of Andrés (González) and Marta's (Estefan) lost love is the beating heart of Vivo's journey.
The moving story of Andrés (González) and Marta's (Estefan) lost love is the beating heart of Vivo's journey. Credit:

Their adventures, both together and apart, also open the door to a supporting cast that mostly exists to generate laughs. We have Dancarino and Valentina (Brian Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer), a pair of doofy, mutually lovelorn spoonbills who end up in a clumsy and fumbling yet unassailably sweet courtship. We also get to spend brief, entertaining stretches with Leslie David Baker and Michael Rooker who play a grumpy bus driver and a noise-hating Everglades python, respectively.

The trio of Katie Lowes, Olivia Trujillo, and Lidya Jewett â€" though it's Lowes who gets the heaviest lift â€" is also a brighter piece of Vivo's comedy. The three lend their voices to the mildly antagonistic Sand Dollar Troop, a Girl Scouts-like crew of environmentally conscious cookie peddlers.

Gabi wants no part of that gang despite the urgings of her mother Rosa (Zoe Saldana). But when the young girls catch a glimpse of Vivo, a rainforest-native mammal that definitely has no business running loose in south Florida, they set out to disrupt whatever Gabi's plans might be and "rescue" the little kinkajou. The Sand Dollar Troop's arc through the movie isn't quite that straightforward, but suffice to say they bring a lot of laughs â€" and unexpected twists â€" to this journey.

Really, I can't say enough about how thoroughly enjoyable it is to spend 100 minutes marveling at Vivo's gorgeous and vibrantly colorful world. Don't bother scrutinizing the animation for Pixar comparisons. This is a beautiful movie in its own right, and the art direction serves the characters and the story perfectly. (A few more of those luscious 2D sequences would've been nice, though.)

For fans of Miranda's work especially, this is a special creation. It almost feels of a piece with In the Heights, given the close proximity of each movie's release. Vivo fits neatly into a growing body of work for this world-renowned playwright, music-maker, and entertainer. Miranda himself may not be able to stop pondering what a legacy looks like and how it's shaped, but in Vivo, with the help of Hudes, Barsocchini, and plenty of other talents, he's further cementing a legacy of his own.

Vivo begins streaming on Netflix Friday.

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