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With: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Jimmy Smits
Written by: Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the stage musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda & Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language and suggestive references
Running Time: 143
Date: 06/11/2021

In the Heights (2021)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Lin & Tonic

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Opening Friday in theaters, and streaming for one month on HBO Max, In the Heights is everything a great movie musical should be, from its depiction of both pulsing life and exuberant art, to its place in the world.

A breathtaking sequence popping with color and set in a vast public swimming pool recalls Busby Berkeley's swirling sequences from his Depression Era musicals like 42nd Street and Footlight Parade.

Just as those movies gave audiences an escape from the worries of the day, In the Heights comes along with perfect timing, after a long pandemic, with fears still lingering, and hope on the horizon.

Originally written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes — the latter of whom adapted the screenplay — the stage version of In the Heights first arrived in 2005, a decade before Miranda's Hamilton.

Unlike Hamilton, which is a precision work of interlocking, mirroring pieces, In the Heights simply flows, drifting through the days of a summer, wandering from one character to the next.

Our storyteller is Usnavi (an impressive Anthony Ramos, also in the original cast of Hamilton), who runs a little corner store, a bodega, in Washington Heights, selling cafe con leches every morning to his neighbors.

He works with his younger cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and lives with Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, from the Broadway show), who raised him after the death of his parents.

He is in love with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in a beauty salon and dreams of being a fashion designer.

Usnavi's best friend is Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works as a taxi dispatcher. In turn, Benny is in love with Nina (Leslie Grace), who went away to college at Stanford and has returned in defeat, having dropped out.

Nina's experience as an outsider, away from her tribe, is the source of what lies on the periphery of this story.

She tells disturbing stories of being mistaken for a maid, and being accused of stealing her white roommate's necklace. These are non-white, Latinx characters who are forever defined by, and marginalized because of, their appearance, at least in the outside world.

In the Heights though, they are a huge support group. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone feels alive. Tempers flare, people gossip and tease one another, but there's also love and caring and support.

The director, Jon M. Chu, is best known for the smash hit Crazy Rich Asians, but has also directed many music films, including entries in the Step Up series and, ahem, two Justin Bieber documentaries.

Regardless of his track record, Chu finds that magical balance that so many recent musicals (Rent, Dreamgirls, Mamma Mia!, Les Miserables, Into the Woods, etc.) have failed to do.

So many directors of musicals, going all the way back to the 1950s, have relied on hugeness to do their jobs for them; the bigger and more colorful the movie, the better the chance of winning an Oscar. But the result was often pulverizing bombast, a bulldozer experience that felt more like vigorous exercise than cutting loose.

Essentially, Chu blends the moments in which human beings suddenly burst into song so that it feels like a natural transition. Here, life, dancing, and music flow together in one great big, heart-pounding rhythm.

The songs in In the Heights can start at seemingly any time, naturally, without any obvious lead-up cues. One, "Carnaval del Barrio," takes place in the dead heat of day, starting with citizens drooping lazily on the concrete, and ending with a soaring song, and an unrestrained, life-celebrating dance.

Songs can be simple, such as Benny and Nina singing and dancing through a neighborhood pick-up basketball game, or complex, such as the same pair dancing on the side of a building, as if gravity had suddenly shifted 90 degrees. But they all fit.

Abuela's solo number, set on a subway train and in graffiti-covered tunnels, is glorious and heartbreaking, unreal and genuinely emotional, all at once.

As with Hamilton, many songs are laced with hip-hop, bringing a powerful, street-level gusto to the soundtrack. One great tune ("96,000") has four of the guys walking along, rapping, and playing with animated props that magically appear and disappear.

Aside from its many other themes, the main driving force of In the Heights is the impending end of things. As the neighborhood becomes more and more gentrified and more expensive, or as locals decide to get out and follow their dreams, the delicate balance is upset, and the magic begins to wane.

The movie demonstrates the real passing of time with the casting of Miranda himself, not as Usnavi, the role he played on stage, but as the older, slightly pot-bellied Piragua (shave ice) Guy.

However, a movie this life-affirming eventually also finds room for hope, and a belief that the future can and should be better, for everyone. Perhaps most triumphantly, a little post-credits "button" — make sure to stick around — sends us away with a smile.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has released a shimmering, pulsing Blu-ray for home viewing (and quite possibly singing and dancing in the living room). It includes an above-average behind-the-scenes featurette, 43 minutes long, as well as "sing-a-long" versions of the title track and "96,000," and an option to skim through the musical numbers by themselves. Highly recommended.

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