The Movie Guru: “In the Heights” a catchy, warm-hearted musical charmer
If you like movie musicals, it's hard not to fall for "In the Heights."
Created by Lin Manuel Miranda before he went on to pen the juggernaut “Hamilton,” the musical is a sprawling, warm-hearted celebration of culture and community. Premiering in theaters and on HBO Max this week, the movie version offers some powerful insights into the immigrant experience blended with fantastic music and dancing. You might shed a tear or two, but your toes will definitely be tapping.
The show, which has been tweaked somewhat from the stage version, focuses on the largely Dominican inhabitants of a particular neighborhood in Washington Heights. All of them have dreams, from going back to the Dominican Republic to changing the world right here in the U.S., and all of them face barriers to those dreams including poverty, racism, and immigration status. In the middle of all this, they fall in love, get jealous, support their families, and figure out how to hold on to the things that matter most no matter what gets in the way.
Director John M. Chu, best known for “Crazy Rich Asians,” delivers the entire thing with the same wonderful mix of cultural specificity and universal emotions. These characters deal with everything from seeing their dreams closed off by their illegal status to getting mistaken for the wait staff at an official University event, and even if we’ve never felt anything like that the movie helps bring the characters’ pain home. They also wrestle with questions we’ve all felt, such as whether it’s worth it to take on the weight of your parents’ dreams and how to prioritize ambition versus day-to-day joy.
It’s also a ton of fun. The music and dancing are fantastic, and though the songs aren’t quite as iconic as “Hamilton” they’re actually catchier in some ways. They’re also all clearly designed for dancing, and if you do watch this at home feel free to get up and join in on the dance numbers. You probably won’t look nearly as graceful as the people onscreen, but anyone who could rat you out will be too busy dancing themselves.
In between the dances, you’ll get swept up in the acting. The entire cast is really good, from Leslie Grace’s fallen shining star to Melissa Barerra’s fight between despair and burning drive. Corey Hawkins is subtle but powerful, and Jimmy Smits captures his entire life in a handful of scenes. Olga Meridez, who plays Abuela Claudia and is the only holdover from the stage version, is the matriarch of the movie just as much as she is the neighborhood. She’s a grounding force, every moment she’s on screen full of warmth and nuance.
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The real star of the movie, though, is Anthony Ramos. As Usnavi, he’s a magnetic force, charming in lighter moments and just a little bit heartbreaking in more serious scenes. You can see why the street cares so much about him, because it’s not long before you care about him, too.
By the end of the movie, you’ll fall at least a little bit in love with the whole neighborhood.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.