What a wonderful summer treat of a musical! In The Heights is that sublime feel-good picture with everything one could want out of such a production. It’s lavish in its portrayal of an urban wonderland but doesn’t shy away from the anxieties and tragedies of such a community. It’s bursting with intoxicating numbers as much as it is an exhilarating showcase of charm and dance. So easy it is to get lost in the stylish allure that I couldn’t believe the film ran 2 1/2 hours.
I suppose I should expect at least a grand display from the cunning songwriter of Lin-Manuel Miranda who originally developed this project as a Broadway musical. The transition to the big screen is more than warranted. New York City’s Washington Heights comes alive in this film of towering structures, busy streets, rushing residents, and a beat around every corner. Everybody has a dream and everybody has a tune, ready to break into a dance about their passions and pains at any moment.
Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) has a dream of ditching his bodega and returning to the Dominican Republic to revive his late father’s beach shop. His hopes run higher when he receives good news, forcing him into making his tough choice of leaving behind his community in a few days. Saying goodbye will not be easy considering all the eccentric and colorful characters of his vibrant neighborhood.
His cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) helps him run the store and takes a certain pride in sticking up for Usnavi and fighting for the rights of his block. Benny (Corey Hawkins) is his clean-cut friend who works at a taxi dispatch. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) works at a salon and has dreams of becoming a fashion designer while Usnavi shyly hopes she’ll find interest in him someday. Claudia (Olga Merediz) is regarded not just as Usnavi’s Abuela but an Abuela to the whole block, having taken in kids who could use a charming and kind matriarch in their lives.
While Usnavi is looking forward to getting out of Washington Heights, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) is returning. Having felt lonely and mistreated at college, she comes back home feeling like a failure but the community warmly welcomes her back. Benny, in particular, is eccentric as it might mean he has a chance with Nina if he can convince her to stay. But will her father understand such a tough choice in the future?
Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) fills this film to the brim with a vivacious and fast-paced exuberance that is absolutely irresistible. Anthony Ramos doesn’t lie as he sets up the story with his narration that informs us there’s music in the streets. There’s wall-to-wall music that not only sets the tone but tells the many stories of the city. A taxi dispatch transforms into a recording studio and a salon becomes gossip gospel as manicured nails perform a tap dance number.
The drama present is palpable for how much of it revolves around romance and gentrification. The block slowly finds itself transforming, leading to Vanessa questioning where she belongs and if Usnavi can truly say goodbye to the place he has known as home. The building of a blackout that reshapes the block becomes a ticking time bomb throughout yet still surprising when the power drops, a not so subtle allegory for feeling powerless. Issues of immigration and discrimination are also brought up and treated as real issues that are soon glazed with hope for tomorrow as long as you keep fighting. Claudia also has one of the most bittersweet numbers in the whole film that tells one of the most meaningful stories with the most tearful of crescendos for her arc.
I doubt it has to be stated for anyone who takes even a glance at the film but the many set pieces are fantastically staged. The most technically impressive musical number is by far the romantic scene between Benny and Nina as they dance up the side of an apartment complex. It’s a classic bit of Fred Astaire walking-on-walls wonder that is still an impressive work of visual effects for both the mood it communicates and the wonder it weaves.
Everything about In The Heights is so alive and jubilant that it’s hard not to be dazzled at such a joyous romp. Perhaps the one scene that encapsulates the presence is the cameo by Lin-Manuel Miranda as a snowcone salesman who treats the block on a hot summer day. And that’s exactly what he’s served up here, a retreat from the heat that embraces everything which makes cinema so fantastic.