In Washington Heights, N.Y., the scent of warm coffee hangs in the air just outside of the 181st St. subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies a vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is a likable and magnetic bodega owner who hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay by: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Based on In the Heights by: Quiara Alegría Hudes, Lin-Manuel Miranda
2021 is set to be a massive year for musicals on the big screen, headlined by Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story. Musicals on the big screen have had a revival in the past few years, likely from a combination of La La Land’s commercial and critical success and the worldwide phenomenon of Hamilton getting people interested in the Broadway musicals again or for the first time. It is only fitting then that the first musical of the year is In The Heights, an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony Award-winning musical.
Set in the New York neighbourhood of Washington Heights, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a local bodega but dreams of moving back to his parent’s nation of the Dominican Republic but also has a long-held crush on salon worker Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). She, meanwhile, has her own dream of moving downtown and working as a fashion designer. Nina (Leslie Grace), a Stanford student and high school high achiever, returns to Washington Heights but is hiding the secret that she dropped out of college.
In The Heights is a joy to watch. While light on plot, it is full of character and a great, touching story of the immigrant and first-generation immigrant experience. While the film is specific to a Latin community in New York, the themes of finding your place in the world and appreciating home and family are sure to resonate with the masses.
The cast across the board is stellar. Anthony Ramos holds the film together with his central performance and as the film’s narrator. It’s a star-making performance as he showcases the full range of his acting ability. Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrer are all charismatic and impressive as the supporting younger cast, with each of the couplings having great chemistry. Olga Merediz, reprising her role of “Abuela” Claudia from the original broadway run, is the heart of the film and the trio of Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco brought a smile to my face anytime they were on screen. Gregory Diaz IV is a scene-stealer as Uznavi’s younger cousin Sonny, with his funny asides and some of the work he does in the background, while also nailing the dramatic moments added to the character for this iteration.
The real star of the film is the musical numbers. Beautifully presented across the board, Director Jon M. Chu has done a stellar job bringing the musical that was performed on a single set on stage to a real and full world. “In the Heights” is a fantastic opening number and introduction to this community while “96,000” is the stand-out performance of the film and one of the catchier tunes. I also enjoyed “When The Sun Comes Down” which made me wonder how they managed to put that choreography together. While not every song is a hit or memorable number, they all work together to progress the film forward and I’ll admit that I’ve had the soundtrack on repeat in the days since I watched the film.