In the Heights was the last film I caught inside of a movie theatre in 2020. I have not stepped foot in one since that advance press screening last spring. As luck will have it, I’ll finally be fully vaccinated by the time this glorious adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony award-winning musical is released in theatres (and, yes, HBO Max in the USA) come June. And, trust me when I say, the timing couldn’t be better. For there is no film I am more eager to watch amidst an audience than this ode to the beauty of crowds, to the value of solidarity, and to the pleasures of community.
As in the stage musical, our introduction to the Washington Heights neighbourhood of Upper Manhattan is Usnavi de la Vega: an ambitious, fast-talking young Dominican who runs a bodega and dreams of going back to the island. It is through his wide-eyed gaze that we get to see the people and the streets around him. The musical may be a sprawling ensemble that spans all sorts of accents and heritages from Latin America, but there’s no denying that the musical rests on his shoulders. And—no disrespect to Miranda, who first gave life to Usnavi on stage—but Anthony Ramos so wholly makes this role his own, it feels tailor-made to his talents. Ramos, best known for his work in Hamilton and films like Monsters and Men and A Star is Born, gets a bonafide movie star vehicle here. As narrator, leading man and all-around energy machine, his Usnavi is charmingly disarming. On stage you wondered whether Vanessa (Vida’s Melissa Barrera) would ever give Usnavi the time of day as she daydreamed about moving further downtown, but here you can feel the crackling chemistry between the two even in moments where Vanessa playfully resists him.
As In the Heights is a true ensemble, Usnavi and Vanessa don’t get the movie entirely to themselves. There’s Nina (Leslie Grace), who’s coming back home from school with a secret in tow, and Benny (Corey Hawkins), who falls for her. There’s Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a beloved staple of the block who finds her sense of security threatened as anti-immigrant sentiment boils over NYC. There’s Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and there’s Daniela (the luminous Daphne Rubin-Vega) and the girls she employs at her local hair salon (Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco). Their intertwined stories about dreams—American and otherwise—deferred remain as vibrant and engaging as ever. Together, they build a mosaic about what it means to belong in their rapidly changing corner of New York City. A wholly American story about intergenerational conflicts, a distinctly New York City tale of gentrification, and above all, an unmistakable ode to the very neighbourhood Miranda grew up in, In the Heights is a knockout.
There’s a freshness to the material (adapted by Quiara Alegría Hudes) and to Chu’s direction that makes this a breeze of an adaptation. One that captures the ebullience of a number like “96,000”—where the entire barrio imagines what they’d do with such a lottery winning sum in a 21st century riff on Busby Berkeley choreography—and the commanding sensibility of one like “Paciencia y Fe”—with Merediz recapturing the passion and verve she displayed on stage—with equal ease. It’s a musical adaptation that feels grand and intimate in equal measure; there’s plenty of pizzazz to go around but Chu knows just when to zero in on small details (“Little details that tell the world we are not invisible,” as Abuela Claudia points out) to make this effervescent musical sing.
This one deserves to be the film of the summer. To watch In the Heights in 2021 is to experience an endorphin-driven blend of nostalgia and utopia. The scenes of street-wide celebrations, of poolside hangouts, and hair salon gossip sessions feel, at this moment, like remnants of a recent, almost unrecognizable past as well as a vision of the ever closer post-pandemic future we’re all craving. It’s a snapshot of what was and a projected what if, a dreamlike facsimile of the world we’re living in.
And therein lies one of its greatest gifts. For even as it calls back great movie musicals both old and new (giving us the suave coolness of the likes of Singin’ in the Rain and La La Land), it also feels like a great leap forward for the genre. The decision, for instance, to stage its many (oh so many!) show-stopping numbers on location, away from cloistered sound stages, means the textures of the buildings, the cracks in the sidewalk, the rays of scalding sunshine, and the beads of sweat of its performers add a grit to the film’s visuals. Moreover, those outdoor scenes don’t just “open up” the stage version, they explode it, allowing for hundreds of dancers to build out the “Washington Heights” neighbourhood Usnavi rightly notes has streets made of music. Its ebullience is entirely infectious—can you blame me for wanting to relive it (over and over again) in the coming months?
Canadians can watch In the Heights in theatres (where open) and rent it at home June 11th, while audiences in the USA can catch it in theatres and HBO Max June 11.