It’s not surprising that buzz has been building around In The Heights since it was announced. The musical adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredibly popular ode to the diverse community of Washington Heights, New York has all of the ingredients to be the feel good hit of the summer.
The film opens with a bracketing device as an older Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) tells a group of kids the story of how he came to run a beachside bar in the Dominican Republic. The narrative then flashes back to the eventful days leading up to a massive black out as the film’s wide roster of players assemble to sing and dance their way through various issues.
At the center is Usnavi (named by immigrant parents who mistakenly condensed the words US Navy on a boat as they passed Ellis Island). The bodega owner has a thriving business he runs with his teenage Dreamer cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). Usnavi is also nursing a long-held crush on aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), but he longs for DOM, which is the sole remaining connection he has to his parents.
Vanessa has her own struggles and aspirations: she’s trying to open a boutique store out of the neighbourhood, but her skin colour, youth and lack of co-financier means that she’s not taken seriously by realtors. The fact that both Usnavi and Vanessa’s dreams require them to leave the close-knit community they grew up in is an integral part of the narrative, which often contrasts the costs of pursuing what you want with the impact on loved ones, community and identity.
This through-line can also be found in College student Nina (Leslie Grace)’s storyline. After successfully becoming the first Puerto Rican girl from the Heights to be accepted to Stanford, Nina returns home in (self-declared) shame. She wants to drop out – not because she couldn’t handle the academic demands but because she was racially profiled and had no sense of community.
Complicating matters are the two men closest to her, her ex-boyfriend and father, both of whom still live in Washington Heights. Nina was in a serious relationship with Benny (Corey Hawkins), the Black dispatcher who works in her father Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits)’ cab company. Sacrifices were made to pave the way for Nina’s education – Benny ended their relationship to encourage her to go and her father has been selling the business piece-by-piece to cover her expenses. It’s a sacrifice all three were willing to make, however, in order to give Nina the kind of future that was unavailable to her father’s generation.
Circling around these two love stories are a company of supporting players, including Usnavi’s de facto abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the kindly Cuban matriarch of the neighbourhood, as well as Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), Cuca (Dascha Polanco) and Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the trio who run the local hair salon and the main providers of the film’s comedic relief. Beatriz, in particular, is divine, sporting giant hair and a baby voice light years away from her Brooklyn Nine-Nine character.
Naturally In The Heights isn’t just a film about lovers and community, it’s also a full-fledged musical. Director Jon M. Chu cut his teeth on similar material: he famously helmed two Justin Bieber music docs, Step Up 2, as well as Crazy Rich Asians, which proved to Hollywood that POC narratives can be incredibly profitable when done well. Chu’s capacity for marrying narrative with show-stopping song and dance numbers is on full-display, right from the opening number “In The Heights”, which introduces all of the characters via roaming camera and culminates in the expected full company dance number in the middle of the street.
Part of what makes the film so exciting, however, is how unconventionally the musical numbers are staged, particularly Chu’s use of overhead shots during the big numbers to provide a sense of scope and spectacle. The highlight of the film is the lottery ticket-themed song “96,000” which is set at the local watering hole and features both underwater and overhead choreography. Chu doesn’t skimp on the visuals for the smaller, intimate numbers, though: both Claudia’s swan song “Hundreds of Stories” (set on a neon-lit subway) and Benny and Nina’s traditional love ballad “When The Sun Goes Down” (which visually flips the film on its side) are great examples of how to cinematically elevate traditionally stage-y songs.
In The Heights isn’t flawless: like a lot of musicals, the songs in the back half of the film (Act Two) are less memorable and while Miranda’s talent as a songwriter is undeniable, his hammy recurring cameo as Piragua Guy is distracting.
It’s not hard, though, to get sucked into these characters’ trials and tribulations, particularly given the staggering talent on-screen (Ramos, Barrera, and Grace should be at the top of every casting agent in Hollywood, while Hawkins is already on the rise).
At its core, In The Heights is an unbridled celebration of Latin pride and community in a way that has not been seen in a mainstream, big budget Hollywood production in a very long time. The fluid mixing of (often unsubtitled) Spanish among the English dialogue, the focus on food and tradition, and the very deliberate and prominent focus on the Puerto Rican flag in the final number is so powerful and necessary. Even in the moments when the film feels like it’s employing all of the familiar tropes of musicals, the sheer love and exuberance of POC on screen makes the film feel exciting, fresh and vibrant.
In The Heights is a resounding success: the music, top notch performances and Chu’s dynamic direction all contribute to an emotional experience that audiences will yearn to be a part of. It’s a film that sweeps you up and away like only the great musicals can. 4.5/5
In The Heights is out in theatres, HBO Max and available to rent on June 10.