When the credits rolled on Jon M. Chu’s joyous, colorful, pulse-pounding, and hopeful In the Heights, all I could think of was how badly I wanted them to restart the film. Let me sit there and luxuriate in its cultural pride, its celebration of the Latinx experience, and oh yeah, the amazing, stomping music and dance numbers. The adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning Broadway hit couldn’t come at a better time, and absolutely must be seen in a theater.
Sure, you could watch it on HBO Max in the comfort of your own home. Truthfully, it’ll probably play in my own home that way quite a lot, but on the big screen, with the bass pumping and the emotions cranked up to eleven, it’s just a different thing altogether. This isn’t Hamilton, and you shouldn’t go in expecting that. If there’s a thread running through it and In the Heights it’s a passion for history, although in this case a shared history of a people who have endured, and continue to endure great hardship, but fight to overcome it. There’s a fear that their history will be lost to gentrification, or deportation as the immigration crisis lingers as a constant threat, however nothing can stand against a community that stands together.
Anthony Ramos, who has leaped from the Hamilton stage to a fast-rising screen career, leads the way as Usnavi, a bodega owner in the Latin diaspora of Washington Heights. Hopes and dreams are plentiful; everybody has one and for most people there, those dreams will never be fulfilled. But that’s not the point; the fight is what matters, and In the Heights is about people who never give up on their goals. Usnavi (the origin of his odd name is great) wants to one day leave the Heights and return to his father’s homeland in the Dominican Republic. He expresses this, how else, by bursting into song, while preparing the morning cafe con leche for the plentiful customers.
He’s not the only one. In the Heights is an ensemble piece, following a number of people from Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican backgrounds looking for that better life. Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) is a hard worker at the dispatch company run by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), whose enterprising ways have been to support his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) as the first of their family to go to college. Usnavi’s crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is an aspiring fashion designer who longs to leave her job as a nail tech and move to a better part of Manhattan. While all of these people have their individual dreams, they are united by the community matriarch, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who raised Usnavi like he was her own child, and treated others much the same.
Their stories weave together seamlessly through the use of song and dance, with each character representing music from their place of origin. The Puerto Ricans favor bomba and plena, while you also get that merengue flavor from Usnavi, and of course, there’s plenty of salsa, as well. It’s safe to say this soundtrack is unlike anything you’re likely to hear from another major studio film this year, and will probably be blasting on car radios long after that.
Chu might be recognized right now for his work on Crazy Rich Asians, but it’s his Step Up choreography that informs In the Heights most. He was rightfully praised for the energetic routines of those cheesy teen dramas which most of us are too embarrassed to admit we liked. He and choreographer Christopher Scott take the music video-style creativity to another level here, with every number telling a different story in a way that makes them all feel like a centerpiece. With every stomp of the feet, every burst of color, the occasionally gratity-defying performances celebrate what is great about their little corner of the world and the people in it. The pulsing momentum only dips, slightly, at a time of deep mourning and even then the impact of the moment is a well-earned gut punch, and a means of honoring one character’s Cuban roots.
We come to love these people so much that it’s impossible to not be invested in where they are headed. While it would’ve been easy to simply be a feel-good, crowd-pleasing effort, In the Heights tackles tough issues, and explores what the American Dream is for those whose very identity is under attack by the country they live in. The conflict they face is both internal and in other cases it’s generational, choosing between their own pursuits and those laid forth by predecessors who sacrificed everything. There’s a lot that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the original stageplay, has to say and it never gets overbearing. We don’t go too long without another song that boosts our spirits. One of the best, most powerful anthems features Sonny (Gregory Diav IV), a Dreamer brought here illegally through no fault of his own. His status here is constantly on edge, but he expresses it in a rousing poolside jam set to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” bassline.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with special notice to Anthony Ramos whose charisma leaps off the screen. Miranda played the lead role on Broadway, but he slides into a smaller role here and his presence is still welcome. There are a couple of love stories, but I personally couldn’t get enough of Hawkins and Grace together. Something about those two just heats everything up and I wanted to see more of them together.
While there have been a few blockbuster films already in theaters, I can’t think of a better film to break you out of that post-pandemic funk than In the Heights. The experience is absolutely euphoric, and should be seen surrounded by as many friends and family as one can gather.