“The streets were made of music.”
So says bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the son of Dominican immigrants who dreams of (and sings about) a better life in “In the Heights,” a musical story of hope and the American Dream. The Tony award-winning Broadway musical (with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes) is adapted for the big screen by “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu, a man with an eye for the extravagant. Everything about this film is big, hopeful, and unrestrained, and it fits the material perfectly.
Set in a primarily Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Washington Heights during the summer of 2008, the film tells the story of a tight-knit community who share dreams, celebrate their Hispanic heritage, and bond through an understanding of the immigrant experience in New York City. A heat wave is brutal in the barrio, and a blackout looms. Usnavi’s girlfriend Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) works in the busy beauty salon, while he longs to return to the Dominican Republic to open a bar of his very own. Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace) are in love, but her father (Jimmy Smits) doesn’t approve and wants his daughter to finish her college education. There are other major characters who add a vibrant authenticity to the story, all tied together by neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a woman who raised Usnavi after the death of his parents.
It’s easy to follow the plot (the story is just so/so), but the real star of this exuberant, high-spirited film is expressed in the electric dance and musical numbers. The cinematic staging is stunning, especially the opening number (“In the Heights,” which also happens to be the musical’s best song). The film features some incredibly technical camera work that pays off, culminating in a splashy (ha!) sequence at a public pool.
While only a few of the songs are truly memorable, the inventive musical score features an eclectic combination of soul, salsa, merengue, and hip-hop, all tied together in a toe-tapping, artistic salute to Latino heritage. If you like the music in “Hamilton” but wish it had a little more spice, you’ll find it here.
This film looks and feels like it was crafted with fans of movie musicals in mind. The cast is outrageously talented, the costumes are letter-perfect, and the sets capture the feeling of a genuine time and place. “In the Heights” is big, it’s enthusiastic, and it has a contagious message of hope and finding yourself in the process. Themes like that prove to be irresistible, time and time again.
By: Louisa Moore