Many audiences were introduced to Lin-Manuel Miranda through Hamilton. In the Heights marked my introduction, however. While I missed my shot to see the stage version, I did catch the 62nd Tony Awards when In the Heights picked up wins for Best Original Score and Best Musical. Watching the cast performance of 96,000, I knew Miranda had tapped into something game-changing with his unique fusion of rap and Broadway. Miranda’s lyrics flew by at a mile a minute, leaving the audience breathless by the end. Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation captures that same excitement, but on an even grander scale.
Most movie musicals fall into two traps: casting big stars with minimal musical chops and hiring a director who doesn’t know how to translate stage to cinema. In the Heights avoids these pitfalls, turning in a product that’s rooted in theatre, but made for the screen. While Miranda has an extended cameo as Piraguero the Piragua Guy, he doesn’t reprise his role as Usnavi de la Vega. He passes the torch to the equally charismatic Anthony Ramos, who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton on Broadway. Ramos portrays Usnavi as a dreamer who knows Washington Heights like the back of his hand. Yet, Usnavi can’t help but sense he belongs back in the Dominican Republic. Through his younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), longtime crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and the rest of the block, Usnavi may find that home is closer than he thought.
Aside from Miranda, the film’s most recognizable face is Jimmy Smits as Kevin Rosario, a taxi cab service owner with higher aspirations for his daughter. The cast is comprised of Broadway vets, character actors, and seasoned singers. Tony nominee Corey Hawkins shines as Benny, who’s been carrying a torch for Mr. Rosario’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace). The salon trio is rounded out by Stephanie Beatriz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Dascha Polanco from Orange is the New Black, and Mimi Marquez herself, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Olga Merediz deserves Best Supporting Actress consideration for her performance as Abuela Claudia, a role she originated on Broadway. Claudia is an Abuela to everyone on the block and the audience feels were warmth whenever she’s on-screen.
“Warm” may be the best word to describe In the Heights. Few films have done a more authentic job at capturing summer in New York as kids frolic by an open fire hydrant, Mr. Softee taunts Mr. Piragua, and nothing feels better than a cold Coke bottle on your sweaty forehead. In the film’s most expertly choreographed number, we follow Usnavi to a public pool, calling an Esther Williams musical to mind. Director Chu takes full advantage of the film medium, having Benny and Nina dance on the walls in another number. An especially well-edited sequence encapsulates a character’s entire life in several minutes, amounting to the film’s big tear-jerker.
Chu paints his film with all the colors of a fireworks display, which compliments the diverse ensemble. As different as these characters are, all of them bring out the spirit of Washington Heights. Like On the Town and West Side Story, New York isn’t merely a backdrop here. It’s a living, breathing character with a genuine personality. There isn’t a more musical city in the world, bringing people together from all over in harmony. In the Heights combines the power of music, the power of cinema, and the power of New York into one unifying, crowd-pleasing package.