In 2008, “In the Heights” was crowned Best Musical on Broadway, catapulting Lin-Manuel Miranda to create “Hamilton,” which got so much attention that it overshadowed the former.
On Thursday, Miranda’s most personal tale bursts onto the big screen and HBO Max for a celebration of life, diversity and moviegoing that’s bound to be the event of the summer.
After a year of pandemic delays, it was well worth the wait to enjoy a film that is a rare summer blockbuster with the acclaimed legs to make a run at next year’s Oscars, especially if voters want an alternative to Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story.”
The plot follows Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner in the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. He dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, but when he falls for a local hairstylist named Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), he debates staying in a universal quandary of honoring one’s roots or one’s beloved new home.
A star is born in Ramos, a familiar face from TV’s “She’s Gotta Have It” and Broadway’s “Hamilton.” He inherits the lead role from Miranda, who originated the part in New York, but it won’t be jarring to D.C. audiences who already saw him in the role at the Kennedy Center in 2018. He is so likable, so endearing, so believable in his quarter-life crisis.
We root for his romance with Vanessa, played with authentic angst by Barrera. Her eyes communicate disappointment at a Latin nightclub, dancing with other guys until Ramos gets the guts to ask her. You’ll yell at the screen for him to stop playing it cool and step up.
Equally romantic is the love story between Nina (Leslie Grace in her feature film debut) and her father’s employee Benny (Corey Hawkins, who played Dr. Dre in “Straight Outta Compton”). The young actors show their chops at a dinner table scene where major life decisions are revealed in a textbook case of starting a scene one way and ending another.
Not only do the four main characters get a love story, but they also each get a concrete character arc. Usnavi dreams of building an island tiki bar; Vanessa dreams of becoming a fashion designer; Nina drops out of college to seek justice for immigrant “dreamers”; and Benny maintains the vital work of the local taxi dispatch, offended by the idea of shutting it down.
Along the way, diverse casting lands a huge win for Latinx representation with Gregory Diaz IV (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) as bodega sidekick Sonny, Jimmy Smits (“NYPD Blue”) as Nina’s father Kevin, and Olga Merediz as the grandmother “Abuela” (“Madam Secretary”), who rivals the grandmas in “The Farewell” (2019) and “Minari” (2020).
Director Jon Chu stages Abuela’s big number as a dream sequence between the mortal and eternal worlds, using subway trains and stairways as symbolic transitional spaces to the afterworld, a musical equivalent to Adrian Lyne’s horror in “Jacob’s Ladder” (1991).
Chu proves you can do things on screen that you can’t on stage, using Busby Berkeley high angles above the Highbridge Park swimming pool, then making magical use of the side of a building with complex camera choreography by cinematographer Alice Brooks (“Emma”).
Don’t worry, it’s not all flashy razzmatazz. Chu also demonstrates more subtle cinematic choices, showing reflections of the bridge in Usnavi’s apartment window or dancers in the bodega window. The latter comes during a rousing opening title number: “In the Heights! I flip the lights and start my day! There are fights and endless debts and bills to pay!”
It’s a joy watching such vibrant musical numbers take place in the urban environments of spraying fire hydrants on a hot summer day. It’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) with a happy ending, thanks to a nifty twist in the third act that is bound to leave audiences satisfied.
After a tough pandemic year, it’s the feel-good movie we need right now for a joyous return to the movie theater. As Chu recently said, it’s a “vaccine shot of hope and joy.”