The best movie musical of 2021 so far has arrived!
Fresh off his success with the filmed version of “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda has another Broadway sensation called “In The Heights” hitting the big and small screen simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. It couldn’t have come at a more auspicious occasion, because it’s summer, and the movie, itself, is a total joy.
It’s a musical full of diversity and equality, and its characters have such fascinating and emotional stories to tell. It cuts back on the obligatory negative racism, and focuses more on them having dreams and wanting to expand their horizons. It uses its themes wisely and provides spontaneous, elaborate, catchy, and danceable musical numbers-some of the best in recent years.
The story takes place during the summer in Washington Heights in New York, or Nuevo York as they would call it, where it’s main characters have dreams as big as their hearts and melodies. We meet a young bodega owner named Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who dreams of reopening his late father’s (Marc Anthony) old bar in the Dominican Republic, which is now in ruins and was called “El Suenito,” which translates “the dream.” We also meet a young manicurist named Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of moving downtown to become a fashion designer. There’s also a young Stanford student named Nina (Leslie Grace), who had to drop out because she got searched by her roommate’s parents. And her love interest Benny (Corey Hawkins) works at a taxi service owned by Vanessa’s overly optimistic father (Jimmy Smits). He wins his respect when he helps out during a blackout, while the daughter wants to make her own decisions about her education.
Other characters in Usnavi’s story include his motherly figure Claudia (Olga Merediz), who is basically an abuela to his neighborhood, and his young employee Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), whom he believes has bright future ahead of him. Then the blackout I’ve mentioned occurs, and the main protagonist loses another loved one, and the community is now in a sad state. But the wise Brazilian salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) manages to wake them up indicating that they’re not powerless, but powerful.
“In The Heights” was directed by Jon M. Chu, who started with some “Step Up” entries, made some crappy sequels like “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Now You See Me 2,” and expanded his horizons with the delightful romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians.” He jumpstarts his movie career with this musical as well, by committing to Miranda’s work and even casting him as a man trying to sell Piragua, while the ice cream truck roams the hot streets.
Ramos continues to shine with his singing and acting, coming on the heels of “Hamilton,” and his character is ambitious, considerate, and passionate. I’ve never heard of neither Barrera nor Grace, but they both portray young women who refuse to let fate tell them what to do. They’re smart and strong, but they’re both able to have romances, and I admire how Usnavi and Vanessa connect with lyrics and dialogue. Hawkins uses his charisma and style in the right perspectives. And the supporting work from Smits, Diaz IV, Merediz, and Rubin-Vega are all equally excellent. A perfect cast in a perfect movie musical.
The best musical numbers include the opening number when everyone begins their day in the city, and assume their routines. That title is obviously called “In The Heights.” There’s also “96,000,” where everybody at the local pool has high hopes about the winning lottery numbers, and I love the special effects for when Hawkins and Grace dance on the side of their apartment buildings during “When the Sun Goes Down.” Miranda knows his musicals wisely.
“In The Heights” is high-spirited, courageous, versatile, and damn entertaining. We combine movies and musicals in the spirit of “West Side Story” and “La La Land,” because we love them equally. This is one of the year’s best films, and if any other musical were to top it in 2021, I’ll be surprised.
In Theaters and on HBO Max