If you’re vaxxed and eager to return to movie theaters, I can’t imagine a better film to see this summer than In the Heights. Years before Lin-Manuel Miranda found earth-shattering success in Hamilton, he wrote and starred in In the Heights, the Tony Award-winning musical portraying New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood and the people who call it home. On June 11, director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) brings the simultaneously grand and intimate story to the big screen.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) opens the film with the titular song, introducing himself—a bodega owner with a dream of returning home to the Dominican Republic—and his customers, who are almost all neighbors, friends, and family. There’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Usnavi’s love interest who dreams of moving downtown; Nina (Leslie Grace), newly back from Stanford; charming dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins); neighborhood grandmother Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz); cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV); the entire gaggle of salon ladies; and an array of others—including small roles for the original Benny and Hamilton star Christopher Jackson, as well as for Miranda himself.
Despite the massive cast, each of their stories is properly showcased in the course of the film, which spans a few days and a few blocks, an electricity blackout, a winning lottery ticket, the loss of a loved one, and the comings and goings of Washington Heights businesses and locals.
The enormous introductory number starts off strong, and the film continues well with Hawkins in “Benny’s Dispatch,” Grace’s meandering “Breathe,” and the wildly fun “No Me Diga” at the hair salon. “96,000” is one of the biggest displays of dancing and color in the film, almost to an overwhelming point. Merediz’s “Paciencia y Fe” was a surprise standout (honestly it’s impressive in a musical when the Old Lady Song isn’t an immediate skip), and later, “Carnaval del Barrio” has promise to become a crowd favorite.
The film has huge emotional range, at once a neighborhood block party, a celebration of community and home, but also an intimate invitation into the locals’ resilience, and a memorial for the way life used to be, before gentrification and growing up and political conflicts around immigration seeped into the frame. It’s not perfect, impeded by the use of multiple storytelling frameworks and occasionally lacking cohesion, but it’s a blast, perfectly timed for this hopeful summer of reopening in the U.S.
Every member of the audience is made to feel like part of Washington Heights at times, but aspects like the clever shortage of subtitles, the dancing, the incredible food, and the overall cultural authenticity also highlight who the film is really for. It’s a slightly different audience than Hamilton—consider why In the Heights, with the same creator and incredible musical prowess, didn’t cause the same storm as the show about good old white American history. Minority stories don’t hit the mainstream as easily, but hopefully this bright and impressive film adaptation gives In the Heights a big second wind to be appreciated by everyone, whether it’s your story or not. v