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In the Heights

Way back in 2008, Tamara and I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original Broadway cast of IN THE HEIGHTS on stage in New York. At the time, it was a game changer on Broadway. A rap/hip-hop musical? A what??

In 2021, after Miranda went on to win every award on the planet for his next musical, a little thing called “Hamilton”, it’s easy to forget how different “Heights” was at the time.

In the best movie adaption of a musical for me since 2002’s “Chicago”, Miranda and Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) have created a transformative film version of the stage event, raising every facet to the next level of enjoyment.

In a star making turn, Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, a proud Dominican immigrant running a corner neighborhood bodega in Washington Heights. He dreams of returning to his home country and bringing his late father’s business to life. He’s surrounded by other dreamers of every fashion.

Nina (Leslie Grace) has returned from her first year at Stanford, carrying the aspirations of the entire neighborhood on her back. Her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) has leveraged his taxi business to the hilt to pay for her education. His dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants to follow in Kevin’s footsteps and is madly in love with Nina.

Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) works at the hair salon in the neighborhood and makes all the guys in the neighborhood swoon, especially tongue-tied Usnavi.

Every character pops and the cast are excellent.

Olga Merediz reprises her Broadway role as Abuela Claudia, an elderly woman adopted by Usnavi and the neighborhood. Daphne Rubin-Vega is hilarious as Daniela, the owner of the hair salon, young Gregory Diaz IV is fantastic as Usnavi’s right hand man at the bodega, Sonny and even Lin-Manuel himself has a great turn as the neighborhood Piraguero.

Shot on the streets of New York by Alice Brooks (Home Before Dark) and perfectly augmented by great CGI effects to visualize the dreams of the people of Washington Heights, it’s a visually stunning film.

Yes, it’s a musical and as in “Hamilton”, Miranda’s songs are a perfect blend of hip hop, rap, ballads and pop. The opening number sets the stage perfectly, “96,000” is a huge Busby Berkley inspired number at the neighborhood pool, “The Club” is the best dance club sequence in years and “Carnaval Del Barrio” will get you out of your seat.

Merediz’s moving life story told in “Pacirncia Y Fe” is a powerful sequence, well told.

When we saw the original stage production, it was big, fun and moving.

The film adaption in all those things, to the 10th power.

Ramos is excellent, creating a powerful core for the neighborhood and the story.

Hawkins is the biggest surprise. I only knew him from his action roles as the star of the “24” reboot and his role as Dr. Dre in “Straight Outta Compton” but had no idea he had this song & dance talent. Grace and Barrera are strong and my bet is that Merediz, Diaz and Ramos get Oscar nominations next year, along with Best Picture.

Miranda has done a great job updating the film for 2021 and Hamilton fans will enjoy the hold music while Kevin waits to speak with Stanford. They’ll also like seeing Christopher Jackson (we saw him as Benny in the original Broadway cast) as the Ice Cream Truck owner. Jackson was George Washington in “Hamilton”.

Powerful, inspiring, moving and JOYOUS, IN THE HEIGHTS exceeds expectations and fills you with hope. Its final shot is the perfect coda to carry its message forward.

What a great movie. IN THE HEIGHTS gets an A+.

While available on HBO/MAX, we saw it on a huge screen at an AMC Dolby Cinema. Visually, this one deserves the biggest screen you can find!

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