Bold, vivid and bursting with life, “In the Heights” is a rousing celebration of community, culture, heritage and pride.
Director Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) makes Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-”Hamilton” stage musical come alive in a big way. This is a movie with pulse, and it transports you to the upper Manhattan neighborhood for which it is named. You can feel the concrete beneath your feet and the heat in the summertime air, and you can feel its rhythm in your bones. “In the Heights” makes you want to stand up and sing.
Anthony Ramos (“Hamilton,” “A Star is Born”) gets his breakout role as Usnavi de la Vega, who owns a bodega in Washington Heights after immigrating there from the Dominican Republic with his parents as a child. Usnavi, the origin of his name a punchline he shares with a group of children to whom he’s narrating the story, dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic and running a beachside bar, a tip of his cap to his late father.
Usnavi serves as our introduction to the working class neighborhood, where cops and car dispatchers and salon ladies converge and live their lives, drinking cafe con leches and quarter waters and hoping for a better tomorrow. We meet Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Usnavi’s crush, who dreams of being a fashion designer downtown; Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who owns a taxi service that he’s contemplating selling off; Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter, who is back from her first year at college at Stanford and who is contemplating not returning; and Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works for Kevin and is Nina’s ex-boyfriend, who wouldn’t mind having a shot at winning her back.
There’s also Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), the streetwise youngster who works for Usnavi in the bodega and plans to one day go to college; Claudia (Olga Merediz), the neighborhood grandmother; and assorted other comers and goers. As Piraguero, who walks the sidewalks selling shaved ice, Miranda is ever present as the eyes and ears of the Heights. (Miranda played Usnavi in the original stage production.)
“In the Heights” is a musical, of course, and Chu (who also directed a pair of “Step Up” movies) knows how to create big choreographed song-and-dance moments. Here, he stages several impressive sequences, including an introductory number in the streets and another in a public pool, that are complex but grounded, their realism a large part of their charm. (Choreographer Christopher Scott also worked on two “Step Up” films.) Another set piece finds a pair dancing on the sides of buildings, a whimsical sequence that brings some movie magic to the proceedings.
But aside from the singing and dancing, the star of “In the Heights” is the neighborhood itself, and the rich flavor of its inhabitants. These are average folks for whom a $96,000 lotto ticket is life-changing money, people who come from elsewhere and often dream aloud of going back. It’s about families and sharing and generational roots, and making a better life for those who come after you.
“In the Heights” is a memorial to the immigrant spirit, and to the pieces of other cultures that people bring with them and carry on as traditions going forward. It can be as simple as the embroidery on a handkerchief, which Merediz’ character describes as “the little details to tell the world we are not invisible.” “In the Heights” revels in those details, and shines a big, bright, shining light on them for all to see.
‘IN THE HEIGHTS’
Rated: PG-13 (for some language and suggestive references)
Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes
Playing: Now in theaters and on streaming on HBO Max