Lin-Manuel Miranda’s New Movie Musical is a Summertime Burst of Salsa-Flavored Sunshine
In The Heights
Starring Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera & Jimmy Smits
Directed by Jon M. Chu
How to Watch: In theaters and on HBO Max June 11, 2021
This is the musical that started it all.
Years before Hamilton made Lin-Manuel Miranda the toast of Broadway, he wrote the songs for this quasi-autobiographical paeon to the neighborhood of his New York City childhood. First staged on Broadway in 2008, In the Heights was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical.
Now, after a theatrical-release delay of more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it finally hits the big screen with an exuberant summer explosion of salsa-flavored sunshine, a technicolor extravaganza of dazzling sights, a spirit-lifting message about home and family and the hopes and dreams of an immigrant community built on a “corner full of foreigners” where the “streets are made of music.”
Set in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, in the uppermost part of Manhattan, the story unfolds over a period of several days during a sweltering summer as Usnavi (Anthony Ramos,who played the dual roles of Philip Hamilton and South Carolina statesman John Laurens in Hamilton), the 30-year-old owner of a small bodega, or grocery store, considers selling his shop and returning to his native island land, from which he emigrated as a child with his late “papa.”
But Usnavi also feels the tug of another island—Manhattan. His store has become an integral part of his small community, and he can’t deny his feelings for Vanessa (Mexican actress Melissa Barrera, who starred in the Starz TV series Vida), his childhood friend, now a beautiful nail technician with aspirations to become a fashion designer. And there’s also Usnavi’s teenage cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his only store employee… and “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz, who also played the role on Broadway), the loving matriarch of the barrio. She raised Usnavi and became a grandmother figure to most all the other children, too.
What will happen to them if Usnavi goes back to the Dominican Republic?
Then there’s Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace, a Dominican/American actress making her movie debut), who’s just returned to the barrio after “getting out” and completing her freshman year at Stanford University in California. The first in her family to attend college, she’s discovered life outside Washington Heights isn’t the wonderland she’d hoped it would be. Her father (veteran TV and film actor Jimmy Smits), the owner of the local taxi company, wants her to buckle down and complete her education—and he’s willing to make some serious sacrifices for it to happen. But Nina seems to have other things on her mind, including personal reasons for getting involved in local the DREAMers immigration-rights movement—and reconnecting with her beau, Benny (Corey Hawkins, who played Eric Carter on TV’s 24), who works as a dispatcher for her father.
And yes, that’s Lin-Manuel Miranda himself (who starred as Usnavi on Broadway), playing a bit part as a street vendor, peddling shaved ice.
Director Jon M. Chu, who also crafted a crowd-pleasing hit with Crazy Rich Asians, takes Miranda’s songs, this sprawl of characters and the theatrical “book” by Quiara Alegría Hudes and corrals everything into a shot-on-location showpiece with several outstanding production numbers.
Even the display wigs in the local beauty shop spring to waggish life in the playful, gossipy “No Me Diga (You Don’t Say).” The pool at Highbridge Park is the setting for a spectacular, exuberant aqua-ballet number for “96,000,” the dollar amount of a winning lottery ticket that gets everyone excited when it sells at Usnavi’s store—but the winner can’t be located. A sweaty, sexy dance-off heats up “The Club,” just before a blackout plunges everything into darkness, and the loss of electricity for air conditioning turns up the heat even higher. The entire neighborhood pulsates with energy and pride in “Carnival del Barrio,” and the movie’s opening theme song is so catchy, even a manhole cover and a garden hose get into the rhythmic act. In “When the Sun Goes Down,” Nina and Benny do a gravity-defying dance off their balcony, thanks to a nifty bit of camera trickery.
In the Heights is a musical love story, on more than one level, with an even deeper message about where we come from, the lives we make for ourselves and each other, things we give and give back, and a reminder of the riches to be found in America’s vibrant communities of color, anywhere.
“Let me just listen to my block,” says Nina, pressing her face close to a chain-link fence beside a basketball court.
Listen to Nina’s block and you’ll also hear Lin-Manuel Miranda’s neighborhood in his latest triumph, a joyous story about a group of people, a community, its music and traditions. After more than a year of fighting a crushing pandemic, this rousing, hopeful, break-out celebration of dance, culture, storytelling and song is just the shot of feel-good we need. In the Heights soars with the sweet sound of life.