Welcome back to the movies! In The Heights is the first movie I’ve seen in an actual movie theater in over 14 months. And while it is premiering simultaneously in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, In The Heights is the type of movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen first; and then perhaps, in repeat viewings at home. Especially if you’re a fan of movie and broadway musicals. The film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony-winning musical runs a tad long, but hits all the key notes in terms of story, acting, singing, message and homage.
The film is set in New York City’s largely Latinx immigrant community of Washington Heights, where young bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) dreams of hitting it big and opening a beachside bar in the Dominican Republic. The streets of The Heights are filled with dreamers – including the young, undocumented kind – with myriad visions of winning the lottery, moving downtown, growing their business and achieving success, however that may be defined through the lens of their collective history and aspirations for the future.
The community is an extended family anchored by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a Cuban immigrant with no children of her own who’s become a beloved surrogate grandmother to all, especially Usnavi. He hopes to bring her, and his cousin Sonny with him to the DR.
Then – in the midst of a heatwave – a blackout hits the neighborhood (for those in the know- it’s the block outside the 181st Street subway stop, in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge). And through a mix of song and dance and dialogue, we get to see how the lives of various people in The Heights intersect and evolve. They include: aspiring stylist and Usnavi love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera); dispatch worker Benny (Corey Hawkins) and his boss Kevin (Jimmy Smits); the boss’s daughter, Stanford student Nina (Leslie Grace); and gregarious hair salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega).
The names (and faces) of many in the cast may not be familiar to the average movie-goer. But they are well known to the theater crowd. Ramos originated the dual role of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Miranda’s other broadway hit Hamilton; Rubin-Vega is a two-time Tony nominee for Rent (Mimi) and Anna in the Tropics; and Merediz originated the role of Abuela Claudia and won a Tony for it 13 years ago. Miranda created the role of Usnavi for himself onstage, but settles for a couple of cameos in the film as “Piragua Guy” selling shaved ice from a cart.
The film deviates from the Broadway version in a few different ways that will be noticeable to those who’ve seen the show, but won’t impact the viewing experience for those who haven’t. Miranda and Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) frame the narrative through Usnavi’s role as a storyteller, relating his personal journey to a group of local kids. Some songs and characters were cut; some contemporary themes were added.
Overall, the music, energy and heart of In The Heights make it a feel-good movie for summer. So crank up the A/C and check it out. And stay through the end credits. There is a bonus scene involving a taste of ‘sweet revenge’ involving Miranda’s “Piragua Guy” and a Mister Softee ice cream truck. If you’ve ever been to Washington Heights, you know they co-exist. I remember the sounds of the Mister Softee truck canvassing the neighborhood when my grandparents lived in Washington Heights – back when I was a kid and the neighborhood included a large contingent of German Jews. My nephew lives there now. But that’s a story for a different film…
In The Heights premieres in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on June 11.
(p.s. to theater fans, director Jon Chu is directing a movie version of the Tony-award winning musical Wicked. It’s still in pre-production, but something else to look forward to!)