It’s been a long while since we’ve had a properly outrageous musical come to the big screen. Racking my brain, 2019’s excellent Aladdin redux was the most recent one that came to mind. In the Heights is here to scratch that itch, while embracing modernity and culture with a tender hand. Only Lin-Manuel Miranda, clearly inspired by Rent, could’ve written such a personal and moving musical. Filled by an ensemble of rising talent, this film comes built with a potent and powerful message of hope.
Set in New York City’s bustling Washington Heights, we follow a diverse roster of mainly Latino characters. Our doe-eyed dreamer Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) acts as our narrator and window to the unfolding action. Usnavi, a bodega owner who longs to win the lottery and escape to the Dominican Republic to start a better life, crushes on gorgeous salon girl Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). As he gears up to close his family shop, he reflects on the people and places that have defined his journey, including his self-appointed Abuela, Claudia (Olga Merediz), and his childhood friend, Nina (Leslie Grace), who herself is struggling to afford a Stanford tuition.
The cast for this film is just as great as the material itself, with Anthony Ramos filling Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-nominated shoes as Usnavi. I fell in love with his character, sincerity, and drive to follow his dreams. I liked Ramos in Hamilton, but as he steps into the lead, Ramos is able to evolve the scope of his impressive talent. The biggest surprise for me was Olga Merediz, who gets her own musical number (“Paciencia y Fe”) that becomes deeply meaningful and important to the rest of the film. Leslie Grace’s Nina has an interesting role opposite Corey Hawkins’s Benny. Neither character feels as vital to the plot as some others. However, I did enjoy Nina’s musings with Benny (“Who would I be if I had never seen Manhattan?”), and how their love story finds them literally climbing the walls of a building together.
An energetic and rousing opening song (“In the Heights”) immediately thrusts us into the world of these characters and life in Washington Heights, a la Skid Row from Little Shop of Horrors or Baltimore from Hairspray. The setting is every bit a crucial element to the story as its characters. Filming in New York City adds yet another layer of authenticity.
The songs are unique and specifically Latino, wearing cultural music influences on its sleeve like a badge of honor. Certain ones are very Hamilton and Rent, with the latter musical serving as major inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda. The large-scale choreographed musical numbers are varied enough to never feel repetitive. Director John M. Chu stages each of these extravagant set pieces with a modern flare that doesn’t forget to pay tribute to the heyday of movie musicals. His eye for visual cotton candy means colorful and exciting imagery in every frame. The moving wigs in “No Me Diga” react as if they have an inside scoop to the drama. The lottery song “96,000” is intricately choreographed, and the camera even follows the ensemble into the lush blues of the local swimming pool. I’m not sure how much visually was lifted from the Broadway show, but it’s an impressive display of Chu’s eye for detail.
In the Heights showcases that there’s beauty in every culture. Director John M. Chu, a seasoned vet who did a terrific job with similarly dance-heavy Step Up 2: The Streets, crafts a total love letter to New York and its melting pot of diversity. I’m obsessed with Anthony Ramos now and this incredible soundtrack! What a feel-good treat— it was exactly what I needed! Those hungry for the warm embrace of a vibrant new musical will find exactly what they’re looking for when In the Heights comes to theaters and HBO Max on June 18th.
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