The Summer of 2020 was supposed to be the summer of the much-anticipated film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award winning semi-autobiographical musical. When the global pandemic hit, Warner Bros. promptly scratched that time line. The move turned out to be a blessing.
When the two-and-a-half hour Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) directed spectacle finally hits movie theater screens and HBO Max on Friday, the timing could not be more perfect. For a nation cloistered on its collective couch for the past 14 months, “In The Heights” simultaneously serves as this summer’s best reason to re-enter a movie theater and also an inspiring reminder about who we can be as a country when we choose inclusivity over division and love over hate.
“In The Heights” is also poised to make history as the first big budget American musical set in a Latin American New York City neighborhood with a cast almost entirely made up of actors and performers of Dominican, Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Panamanian descent.
Shot on location in New York City’s Washington Heights in the summer of 2019, Chu has assembled a stellar ensemble, including Corey Hawkins (who notably played Dr. Dre in 2018’s “Straight Outta Compton”) as lovelorn dispatcher Benny, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, Leslie Grace as Nina, Jimmy Smits as Nina’s financially beleaguered father Kevin, Daphne Rubin-Vega (who originated the role of Mimi in “Rent” on Broadway) as spirited beauty salon owner Daniela and Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny. Blessedly, Olga Merediz, reprises her Tony-nominated role as Lotto-playing, wisdom-dispensing neighborhood matriarch Abuela and the musical’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (who portrayed the lead Usnavi in the original Broadway cast), is seen periodically throughout the picture pushing a shaved ice cart as the neighborhood piragua guy.
Playing Usnavi is Miranda’s former “Hamilton” Broadway cast mate Anthony Ramos, who played the dual roles of John Laurens and Hamilton’s son Philip in the smash show. Make no mistake — this is Ramos’ movie. His freckled face and “skills”-challenged optimistic energy as Usnavi simultaneously drives and grounds the film. Sixty years from now, like Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning star turn as Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story,” people will likely trace the trajectory of Ramos’ career back to “In The Heights.”
Like “West Side Story,” Chu’s direction turns three scorching summer days in Washington Heights into a Skittles-hued fantasyland where public swimming pools (“96,000”) a cramped car service communications booth (“Benny’s Dispatch”) and speeding subway trains (“Paciencia Y Fe”) become the unexpected locales for gorgeously gritty Busby Berkeley-like musical production numbers. And an entire book could be written on the staging of the jaw-dropping, gravity-defying “When The Sun Goes Down” number, featuring lovers Benny and Nina on her fire escape overlooking the George Washington Bridge.
Diehard purists of the original Broadway musical may want to brace themselves for a few musical numbers and extraneous characters being trimmed from the film and a couple of new but timely subplots involving DACA protests (at one point, one of the show’s most beloved characters turns to another and says, “I knew I couldn’t get a driver’s license but no college?”) and racial profiling at a prestigious university. FYI: fans of the original Broadway musical will want to sit through the film’s end credits for one last treat, too.
Like its Broadway predecessor, Miranda’s story and the power of Quiara Algeria Hudes’ script (based on her original Broadway book) are most poignant in the film’s quieter moments. For example, when Smits’ financially strapped immigrant father is fighting to provide a better life for his troubled college student daughter, the parental push for the next generation to have an easier life comes dramatically into view: “Nina, if you can’t stay in the ring, what does that say about us?” And later in the film, the emotional father reveals to his child, “This is the moment when you do better than me.”
“Hamilton” fans, meanwhile, will want to keep their eyes — and ears — peeled for a few fun nods to Miranda’s other big musical that screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes and director Jon Chu slyly sprinkle into the film.
Ultimately, “In The Heights” is a sun-dappled 143-minute burst of joy about the importance of community, your blood, the pull of home and your chosen family. It’s a neighborhood filled with love you’ll likely want to re-visit with friends and family from your own local air conditioned movie theater multiple times this summer. It’s that rare event movie worthy of that second mortgage concession stand tub of popcorn and tanker truck-sized soda.
The film’s first eight minutes are so immersive, they’ll completely transport you to Usnavi’s corner bodega near the 181st Street subway station — all without a MetroCard.
Movie-goers will want to heed the film’s heroine Nina as wisely advises at multiple moments throughout the film as she lets the sound of rumbling subway cars, honking car horns, children playing hopscotch and the tinkling of bicycle bells envelop her: “Sssssh, let me just listen to my block.”
Above photos: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.