In the Heights was shot before the COVID-19 era, but there might not be a better movie to see in theaters as we attempt to move past the pandemic. Written and produced by Hamilton wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s a magnificently crafted and choreographed musical, and a vivacious valentine to Manhattan’s Washington Heights and the Latin culture that thrives there.
Miranda pulls out every trick in the genre playbook, from the flashback that opens the film, to crane shots transitioning in and out of scenes, to a mesmerizing dance sequence that rivals The Young Girls of Rochefort. There’s a larger-than-life, only-at-the-movies quality to every frame of this instant classic, and it demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
An infectious energy whisks the film along, starting with the opener in a grocery store which breaks out into a colorful, city-wide dance number. Usnavi (Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos) sings about his life in Washington Heights, and how he plans to move to the Caribbean. Until then, he has friends Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace), as well as Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), the teenager he watches over like a father and hassles like a friend, and the promise of romance with a young girl named Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, best known for her work in Starz’s Vida).
They’ve got dreams of their own, far beyond the bodegas and nail salons where they make just enough to pay the bills. Miranda sets each of their hopes to a one-of-a-kind melodic tracklist. Where else can you find a showstopper about a retired house cleaner or a toe-tapper about a guy who sells ice cream? The song about immigration is unlike anything you’ve ever heard.
Miranda’s compositions find beauty in the struggle and the all-Latin cast make the most of each lyric and rhythm. Though the threat of gentrification looms over The Heights, Miranda and director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) keep things light as air, with Usnavi rapping and dancing and twirling away from his problems in ways that feel fresh and relatable. He may want to sell his grocery store and move away, but he also loves New York. No matter the challenges he faces, his life in the city remains upbeat.
Ramos is the beating heart of the film, the dreamer who tries to run away from hardship, but secretly loves the challenge of his surroundings. Usnavi’s future seems out of reach, but Ramos’ performance makes us believe in his quest for love and escape. He will have to choose between one or the other, a decision made all the more difficult by Vanessa’s effortless allure, as well as the city’s need for a grocery store.
The choreography of cameras, bodies, sweat, and smiles is so wildly wonderful and wonderfully wild that the 143-minute run-time flies by like a night at the club. In the Heights feels like a fiesta. It’s impossible not to get sucked into its Latin dayger-meets-Jacques-Demy vibes. A pool party erupts into a Rochefort-style flash mob, while a gravity-defying waltz up the side of a building will make your jaw drop and your heart stop.
In the Heights is both a crowd-pleaser and a locals-only inside joke — anyone who has ever lived in the area will laugh at the dearth of authentic bodegas. But it’s all-inclusive in its themes of love, hope, and community, and ultimately, a loving sendup to big screen spectacle. ❖
On HBO Max and in theaters on June 10.
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