‘In the Heights’ Transforms Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Washington Heights Musical Into an Exuberant Cinematic Escape

As audiences begin to slowly make their way back to open cineplexes, the time is now ripe to enjoy a spectacle like “In the Heights.” Also streaming on HBO Max, this cinematic take on the Broadway hit by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes takes regular lives and makes them big, as big as the so-called American Dream, with all of its joys and heartbreaks. Miranda and Hudes’ musical is about Americans in the purest sense of the word. It celebrates those corners of New York City that have long been the home of communities bridging North America and Latin America, the East Coast and Caribbean. The music is also as mixed as the cultures. Hip-hop seamlessly melds with the rhythms of salsa, cumbia and pop, creating a stirring experience.

The hero is Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), a Dominican immigrant who moved to New York at the age of eight and now runs a small bodega in Washington Heights. Surrounded by the rushing sounds of the city and boisterous combo of the Latin communities that live in the Heights, Usnavi holds on to his dream, or sueñito, which is to have a business of his own. The opportunity drops when he gets the chance to buy his late father’s small shop back in the Dominican Republic, which has been ravaged by a hurricane. But Usnavi’s heart belongs to Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of being a fashion designer in the city’s ritzier corners. She’s independent and driven, but might just give Usnavi a chance. Coming back to the neighborhood is Nina (Leslie Grace), who is terrified of letting everyone know she has decided to drop out of the very white-centric Stanford. It was the crowning dream of her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who will sacrifice anything to make sure his daughter can succeed. But success can mean many things in this working class hub, where English flows into Spanish, and where a summer blackout will soon test everyone’s spirits.

In many ways and without hyperbole, “In the Heights” is the first popular film this year you can really call glorious. The music and lyrics by Miranda, the screenplay by Hudes, and the directing of Jon M. Chu, all come together to celebrate the sounds and culture of an entire sector of not just NYC, but of the United States. Washington Heights becomes a microcosm of the various immigrant blends that give corners of this nation a Latin and Caribbean identity. This was of course why the original Broadway production became a Tony-winning hit, but as a film it makes the screen come alive. Chu had previously directed the lively “Crazy Rich Asians,” but with “In the Heights” he and cinematographer Alice Brooks let the camera fly through exhilarating musical numbers like the rap-tinged “96,000,” which begins on a street corner with Usnavi and friends discussing a lottery ticket, and then glides into a spectacular crowd number at a public pool. In this scene young actor Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, a local kid who comes under Usnavi’s wing, brings blistering energy to one particular set of rhymes. While “In the Heights” packs much cultural meaning, first go see it to drink in the colors and cinematic energy. The choreography in moments like “The Club,” where Usnavi is finally granted a date by Vanessa has a feverish force where Latin dance styles become as intricate as any of the dancing in “West Side Story.” Miranda himself has one of the tamer numbers, but so warm and heartfelt as a local vendor with his breezy number “Piragua.” Like Miranda’s groundbreaking “Hamilton,” the brilliance of the music is its hybrid nature. Merengue transitions into rap or pop, or an aged Cuban like Abuelita (played luminously by Olga Merediz) sways at home to old boleros. 

What ultimately makes “In the Heights” special is how every song and character means something to the storytellers that goes beyond plot points. Even in its moments of corny romance, like Vanessa and Usnavi sharing champagne in his apartment as he prepares to leave the city, the roots of this production harken back to the very soul of the immigrant experience. “In the Heights” is devoid of stereotypes like gangs or drug dealers. Instead everyone lives with all of the dualities that being an American can mean. Lyrics and title cards are in Spanish, and going to college is a big deal, as Nina discovers when he spills her secret at a gossipy salon run by the vivacious Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega). But it can also mean dealing with subtle and overt racism. Nina shares over dinner about being mistaken for a waitress at Stanford. She also has a sweet romance with a local dispatcher, Benny (Corey Hawkins), who must also accept that loving Nina means supporting her right to move away for school, which is a universal dilemma for young lovers anywhere nowadays. The casting and narrative need no white saviors either. It celebrates Afro-Caribbean culture and the South American heritage of Washington Heights. Fittingly there’s a stunning number near the end where everyone waves Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican and Mexican flags, with Colombian and Venezuelan ones spotted in the background. Abuelita has one of the great solos when she sings while riding a subway strewn with her Cuban memories, recalling the terror of moving here in the 1940s, knowing little English and having to scrape by.

It is the little things of life in a neighborhood that count in “In the Heights,” from the rivalry between Miranda’s vendor and a guy with a flashy ice cream truck, to the creeping fear of gentrification. There are no cheap plot twists in what is still a highly romantic musical. But major decisions come down to whether Nina’s dad is willing to sell his business in order to pay her tuition, or whether Usnavi, whose dad named him after a U.S. Navy ship he gazed at when arriving in America, should seek better business prospects in Dominican shores. In this sense “In the Heights” celebrates something much more in its powerful diversity. Anyone from any struggling background can relate to it. Whether we are from down south, the Caribbean, or not, everyone has a dream or hope. We want to be our own bosses and hope somebody will love us. With great music and stunning skill, “In the Heights” reminds us that human desires, fears and joys come in all languages. 

In the Heights” releases June 10 on HBO Max and in theaters nationwide.