Once a hit Broadway musical, before Hamilton made Lin-Manuel Miranda a name, In The Heights hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday. Director Jon M. Chu, who had great success with Crazy Rich Asians, brings the story of Washington Heights in New York City to the silver screen. In doing so, he has made a modern twist on the Old Hollywood musical. The film has some narrative issues but these are overshadowed by its infectious energy, pounding rhythm, and charming cast.
The story is about the generations of dreamers who have created communities in New York and the gentrification that threatens to destroy them. The film opens with Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) telling a "Once upon a time" story to a group of young children. He explains to them what the Heights means to his loved ones. He makes them say it "Washington Heights" so it won't be forgotten. The film's title song lays out the plot, themes, character, and vibe of the whole film in one excitingly staged number.
The film unfolds over the hottest day of the summer as a blackout approaches. The general story, involving two couples getting together, isn't anything revolutionary. What is fresh is the cultural specificity of the location. While this is very much a fairy-tale version of New York, it also gets plenty of details right about the Dominican neighborhood there. Usnavi and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a would-be fashion designer, are the central couple. Usnavi dreams of returning to the Dominican so he can restore his father's bar there. Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace) are the secondary romance. Benny works at Nina's father's taxi dispatch office. Nina is returning home from Stanford. She doesn't want to go back because she feels alone and judged there for her roots. Her proud father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) will do anything to allow her to be the first in their family to graduate.
In the Heights suffers from not having a strong narrative arc, particularly in the middle act. The opening and closing acts are wonderful but everything thing in between feels more like a series of vignettes. Those vignettes allow for some visually inventive and catchy musical numbers. The film regularly uses animation and CGI to accentuate the musical numbers. The impressively large cast creates large-scale numbers that will live in your memory for some time. In the Heights soars thanks to its good intentions, high energy, and charm. The plot is repetitive and at times overly melodramatic but somehow none of this affects the overall feeling you get from watching the film. Ramos has so much charisma as Usnavi. He has incredible chemistry with Barrera. The supporting cast all have great moments as well. The real star is the production numbers that reference musical giants from Busby Berkely to West Side Story. All are given a Latino spin that melds rap, salsa, and reggaeton into something totally unique. Miranda's talent for rhymes will be no surprise to anyone familiar with Hamilton. The film drags a bit but then comes along another stunning musical number and all is forgiven. While the film is going to be streaming, the sheer scale demands it should be seen on the biggest, loudest screen possible. Summer is here!