"In the Heights" turns the pursuit of life dreams into a song-and-dance summer spectacle
In the Heights
Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Jimmy Smits and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Directed by Jon M. Chu. Streaming on Google Play, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video. 143 minutes. PG
Comparisons may be odious, but they're also inevitable when assessing the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda. He's the songwriter, playwright and showbiz phenom whose most celebrated stage musical, "Hamilton," leapfrogged his earlier creation, "In the Heights," onto the big screen.
The momentous "Hamilton" recounts the birth of America as a nation. "In the Heights" has more modest aims. The film applauds American diversity and resiliency through the music, food and passions of Washington Heights, the predominantly Latino New York City neighbourhood where Miranda grew up.
This is not to diminish "In the Heights," but rather to enjoy it for what it is: a spirited song-and-dance spectacle that's more concerned about encroaching gentrification ("mad changes on the block") than fomenting revolution.
The huge ensemble cast seems almost too big and talented for a story this slight. No worries: Think of the movie as a series of vibrant short stories, scripted by Quiara Alegría Hudes from Miranda's music and lyrics.
Many of these stories — with their attendant life choices — come with big production numbers, which Jon M. Chu ("Crazy Rich Asians," "Step Up 2 & 3") directs with flair and vigour. These include a Busby Berkeley-style synchronized swimming pool sequence set to the lottery fantasy tune "$96,000," employing 500 background extras and swooping crane shots. There's also the huge "Carnaval del Barrio" street dance, led by former "Rent" star Daphne Rubin-Vega, reviving the Heights community after a blackout darkens all of New York.
The charismatic Anthony Ramos, harnessing ambition to overcome shyness for the role Miranda claimed on the stage, plays the film's main character, bodega owner Usnavi. He's a man with a sueñito (little dream) to return to his Dominican Republic village to rebuild the beach bar owned by his late father. Usnavi's resolve is tested by his unspoken infatuation for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a beauty salon worker who dreams of becoming a fashion designer and moving to a trendier part of NYC.
There's another couple with conflicting sueñitos: taxi dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins), who hopes to take over the car service he works for, and his scholarly ex-girlfriend Nina (Leslie Grace), who thought she'd escaped both her hard-scrabble 'hood and her unresolved feelings for Benny when she went off to study at Stanford. Their duet on the magic-realist "When the Sun Goes Down" is one of the film's best musical moments.
"In the Heights" offers no easy path to dream fulfillment. Instead, it turns the quest into joyous summer entertainment. 🌓