In the Heights
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Based on the Tony-winning Broadway musical, with music and lyrics by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights tells the story of bodega owner Usnavi and the immigrant community in the Washington Heights neighborhood he calls home.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, obviously. His music is the centerpiece of the film, and he also appears in a minor role. Taking over the lead role Miranda originated on Broadway is his Hamilton co-star Anthony Ramos. The cast also includes Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, Kong: Skull Island), singer/songwriter Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera (Vida), Olga Merediz (Broadway’s In the Heights), Daphne Rubin-Vega (the original Mimi in Broadway’s Rent), Gregory Diaz IV (Broadway’s Matilda the Musical), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Dascha Polanco (Orange Is the New Black), and Jimmy Smits. Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) directs, with screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes adapting her book from the stage production.
Like the Broadway musical that inspired it, In the Heights is filled with life, music, color, and passion. It literally radiates joy. What a fantastic way to kick off the summer, as we begin to emerge and heal from the stress and suffering of the past year. Though it’ll be available to stream with an HBO Max subscription, this new release is a great reason to get back to the cinema, if you can. For those missing the full, big-screen theatrical experience, it doesn’t get much better.
I could have my theater-kid card revoked for saying this, but not all musicals make good movies. I can’t imagine, for instance, any version of Hamilton working better than the filmed stage production currently streaming on Disney+. Fortunately for moviegoers this summer, that’s not case for Miranda’s previous Broadway smash. Director Jon Chu has translated it beautifully for the screen.
As the title implies, In the Heights is about a very specific neighborhood, and setting it in the real Washington Heights grounds the story in immediate and realistic emotion. The George Washington Bridge looms in the distance of many scenes, artistically framed against the sunset or lit up in the distance at night. You can feel the connection these characters have to their block. It’s their home, as much a part of their cultural heritage as the countries they or their parents emigrated from. The evolving concept of home—the push and pull between the life you came from and the big dreams that lead elsewhere—was a major theme of the Broadway show, and that message is even more resonant on film.
Chu also makes the most of the cinematic medium, using animation and other effects in creative ways. The musical’s energetic visual language feels familiar yet fresh. In one scene giant bolts of fabric roll down from the sky over a block of buildings, representing one character’s dreams of becoming a fashion designer. In another, a couple dances on the side of a building, defying gravity like Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding. There’s an entire number set at a public pool and filmed like a candy-colored Busby Berkeley musical starring Esther Williams. You can’t do that on stage.
Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes adapted her own book from the stage show, and has made some updates—both major and minor—to the plot, character histories, song order, and timeline. Knowing that a certain segment of the audience would already be familiar with the entirety of the Broadway version going in, the creative team threw in some twists to keep fans guessing. Purists may balk, but the spirit and theme of the original production remain intact.
Anthony Ramos—who played John Laurens and Hamilton’s son Philip in Hamilton—takes over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original role as bodega operator Usnavi. Named for a passing ship his father saw upon entering New York harbor for the first time (it actually said “U.S. Navy”), he’s our narrator and tour guide, introducing the neighborhood and its residents in the film’s epic opening number. His sueñito, or “little dream,” is to one day return to the Dominican Republic and re-open his father’s shuttered beach bar. Ramos has a magnetic screen presence and is more than capable of holding the film on his shoulders.
He doesn’t have to, though. The cast is bursting with talent, from Melissa Barrera, who plays Usnavi’s vibrant love interest Vanessa to young and charming newcomer Gregory Diaz IV as his cousin, Sonny. Latin music star Leslie Grace, makes her big-screen debut as Nina, opposite Corey Hawkins as taxi dispatcher Benny, a role originally played by Hamilton‘s George Washington, Christopher Jackson (who has a fun cameo himself). Not to be outdone by her youthful co-stars, Broadway’s original Abuela Claudia, Olga Merediz, shows off the skills that earned her a Tony for the role. Last, but not least, there’s Jimmy Smits, probably the biggest name in the cast, who brings the necessary gravitas to the role of Nina’s father, Kevin Rosario.
Come for the performances and the music and the big dance numbers, stay for the touching and intimate portrait of the immigrant experience in America — from several points of view.
After a year-long delay, In the Heights is a celebration worth the wait. If you need a change of mood, the timing couldn’t be better. This is going to be the movie of the summer.
In the Heights is a sure to be a crowd pleaser, so gather your (vaccinated) friends and escape the summer calor inside a cool movie theater.
There are a few fun Easter eggs for Hamilton fans, so keep your eyes and ears open. Also, be sure to stick around after the credits for a bonus reprise with more of Miranda as the piraguas vendor.