When was the last time you were immersed in a musical experience? That’s the magic In the Heights sparks, an exhilarating adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. As our hero Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) awakens and goes through the familiar early-morning motions of opening his street-corner bodega we are drawn into his world and resistance is futile. The Latinx neighborhood prepares for a new day and everyone moves to the infectious rhythms of life. What a way to start a movie!
One by one we meet the other inhabitants of this vibrant community in Washington Heights. Most of them have come from the Dominican Republic—from a proud taxi dispatcher to an angelic woman who is everybody’s abuela (grandmother). There’s the girl who dreams of being a fashion designer, if someone would just give her a chance, and the super-smart student whose first semester away at college has left her disillusioned. The owner of the neighborhood salon has been forced to move even further uptown to the Bronx, but In the Heights refuses to surrender to negativity even while acknowledging such modern ills as gentrification. Corey Hawkins, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Chris Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz, Leslie Grace (and the rest of the cast) give wonderful and passionate performances.
The film doesn’t so much tell a story as paint a mosaic, with rapid-fire lyrics (from the man who gave us Hamilton) extolling the virtues of community and shared experiences, both good and not-so. Appealing performances from an array of screen newcomers, exciting dance numbers, and a feeling of authenticity and immediacy pulsate through the film.
Jon M. Chu was born to direct this picture. He’s proved his love for the movie musical time and again in his brief but meteoric career. (Some day people will discover Step Up 3, belittled when it came along, and give it the plaudits it deserves.) He isn’t afraid to emulate great musicals of the past—even Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight—with an open heart and not an ounce of irony.
Any movie that offers so many jubilant moments must be forgiven its flaws. Hudes’ upbeat screenplay is essentially a clothesline on which a series of musical vignettes are strung. They are the heart and soul of the film, but during transitional moments between production numbers I felt my mind wandering. Even with its rough edges sanded down to some degree, the dramatic story threads are all too familiar and can’t sustain a film that runs well over two hours.
But only a misanthrope could dismiss such an exuberant piece of entertainment. I predict that many audiences will cheer, not only for the feeling that the movie conjures up but the pleasure of enjoying it with an audience on a screen that’s larger than life in a darkened movie theater.