With In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda established himself as a major figure in American musical theater. Miranda followed In the Heights with Hamilton, the production that took Broadway and then the nation by storm.
Now In the Heights has reached the big screen where it serves as a vibrant celebration of the Washington Heights neighborhood that has become a center of New York Dominican culture, broadened here to encompass a variety of Latino ethnicities living in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.
The message behind the energy that director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and a fine cast bring to the movie involves identity and assertiveness, insistence of characters on building lives in New York while keeping their culture close at hand.
A large-scale ensemble piece, the movie nonetheless centers around Usnavi de la Vega played by Anthony Ramos in a commanding performance. Ramos narrates the story and also participates in the tale as a bodega owner who, in the movie's framing device, tells a group of youngsters how he wrestled with the idea of giving up his New York business and emigrating to the Dominican Republic to open a nightclub.
Scenes in the bodega make good use of Gregory Diaz IV, who plays Sonny, Usnavi's teen assistant, a kid who wants to legalize his presence in the US, attend college, and make a life for himself.
Chu introduces the movie in a way that makes it clear that he's telling the story of a neighborhood, showing us a block springing to life on a hot summer day. To underscore the challenges of big-city living, a crippling power outage looms.
A large case keeps things lively, but a few of the performances must be highlighted. Leslie Grace plays Nina, a young woman who has returned to the neighborhood after dropping out of Stanford, where she didn't feel accepted and where she felt she was betraying her roots.
Nina's father (Jimmy Smits) owns the cab company where Nina's boyfriend (Corey Hawkins) works as a dispatcher.
Most of the movie's themes revolve around the issue of flight, how to balance aspiration with faithfulness to heritage.
-- Smits's character is ready to sell his business to finance Nina's tuition.
-- Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) runs the local hair salon and is thinking about moving her business to the Grand Concourse, abandoning Manhattan for the Bronx.
-- Melissa Barrera portrays Vanessa, a young woman who wants to abandon the Heights to establish herself in the downtown fashion world.
The beating heart of the neighborhood belongs to Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a Cuban-American woman who has no children but who has become a grandmother figure for the entire neighborhood.
Merediz sings one of the movie’s key songs, Paciencia y Fe (Hope and Patience), which Chu stages in a New York subway station.
Chu adds some nice graphics and effects flourishes, one involving a spinning manhole cover, another enabling Grace and Hawkins to scale the side of an apartment building as they sing a love duet.
Other highlights include a number at the local pool, where the characters wondering what they'd do if they had a winning lottery ticket that would pay $96,000.
Miranda appears in the role of Piraguero, the guy who sells flavored ice from a pushcart.
When I lived in New York, Washington Heights was known as an Irish neighborhood, a fact to which the screenplay makes glancing reference. Smits’s character bought his business from an Irish-American who was moving elsewhere.
The movie's themes aren't exactly groundbreaking, but new voices give the entire enterprise an invigorating feeling of freshness.
Chu and Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the movie's screenplay, might have done a bit more to condense a two-hour and 23-minute run time, but In the Heights stands as a rich and spirited entertainment that brims with love for a neighborhood and the people who populate it.
Oh, and did I mention that it’s also a lot of fun?