Jon M. Chu’s Broadway-adapted In the Heights captures the pure joy of its stage counterpart, finding charm, magic, and pride in a little, forgotten corner of New York City.
This review of In the Heights (a film you can also stream on HBO Max) contains no spoilers.
If you have an opportunity to see Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights in a theater, you should jump at that chance. Soon after, you’ll understand why the Broadway-adapted musical has become intertwined with the reopening of movie theaters and the reopening of New York City after over a year of supposed hibernation. America’s brightest city never fell asleep, though Chu’s film represents a turning point, one rooted in the city’s uptown Latin history, as it kicks off the Tribeca Film Festival and debuts on HBO Max.
Chu’s film has technically been in production for over a decade, with this iteration starting about five years ago, filming two years ago, and waiting to be released to the world with all of its joy, heritage, and Hollywood magic bursting at the seams. In the Heights contains those traits in spades, filled with massive musical numbers with hundreds of extras dancing in the streets of Washington Heights, a neighborhood rarely visited by most Brooklyn hipsters and Manhattan yuppies. It’s a place that can be forgotten by most in the grandeur of the city, a place with high rises, famous subway stations, and destinations seen by those from the farthest corners of the world.
Like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical that came before it, In the Heights remains rooted, like its city, in the dreams of its characters, the aspirations that will only become realized once others sacrifice their own. The film follows the story laid out by its stage counterpart, following Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young bodega owner living in Washington Heights, as he, his friends, and his family navigate a sweltering heat, a blackout, and a changing neighborhood over the course of a summer. Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes shoehorns in a more political subplot regarding dreamers and the defending of DACA through protests, but the script adheres to the original story’s concern with the gentrification of a place that has held a familial history for generations.
Usnavi’s not the only one with a dream of leaving the block for warmer beaches, as he hopes to go back to the Dominican Republic to revive his deceased father’s business. His best friend, Benny (Corey Hawkins), wants to be a successful businessman. His crush, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), dreams of moving downtown to study fashion. And Nina (Leslie Grace), back from her first year at Stanford, just craves her block once again, breathing in the sounds of Washington Heights while she hides her struggles to form a community on the west coast. The rest of the block comes together through Abuela Claudia (the indomitable Olga Merediz coming straight from the original Broadway cast), the caretaker of the block, and Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), Nina’s father, who owns the local taxi company. It’s a cast of characters, each with a role to play in Washington Heights, and Chu’s film gives them time to explore those roles, to sing with gusto, and to put unmatched energy into an already life-affirming story.
In the Heights hums along due to the vastness of its musical numbers, with “96,000” and “The Club” being standouts, due to their sheer amount of choreography, rising voices, and staging, plastering a smile onto your face, one that cannot be wiped off even by the film’s lacking dialogue scenes or inherent Hollywood cheesiness. These scenes remind us of the power of a good musical, the ability to cause happy tears, the way that an entire audience can join together in the joy of the story being told. This story has always been unabashedly full of life, love, and vigor, focused on the ambitions of a few who rarely are given the audience or the storybook endings of those with whiter skin, higher economic status, and more political power.
The film looks like a summer blockbuster, designed to bring audiences into a dark room with a bright screen, bouncing images of pools, heat, romance, and music across the four walls packed with cheering moviegoers. One of the best Hollywood musicals of the last decade, and certainly the best since Sing Street in 2016, In the Heights brings fans and first-timers together in celebration of a neighborhood of close-knit romantics, stargazers, and chosen families.
In the technical aspects, the film shines with musical numbers that dazzle due to costumes, choreography, singing prowess by the entire cast, and set design that reminds you of the beauty instilled into every corner of New York City, a home that many called “dead” only one year ago. Ramos, Hawkins, Grace, and Barrera all sound fantastic, soaking up the screen with comet-like youth and sincerity, with the former transforming into an even bigger star than he already was, due to be a household name in a number of weeks. Add in some veterans like Merediz and Smits, some comedic relief in Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Daphne Rubin-Vega as the hairdressers, and cameos by more original cast members in Miranda and Christopher Jackson, and you get a cast that brings absolute sensation to an already sensational story.
In the Heights signifies the triumph existing in every corner of this city, the dreams that go unfulfilled, and the people who help their neighbors until their dying breath. It’s a musical that should push people back into theaters and back into the streets to dance their way to the next destination, to walk with a hop and a skip. In its purest form, Chu’s film lights up a room, a theater, and a city, bringing shameless excitement back into the movies.