Review: In the Heights — Movies for the Rest of Us

You'll want to get up and dance along with the cast of this musical tribute to a New York City neighborhood from the creator of the mega-musical 'Hamilton'

A group of young people erupt into song in a New York City neighborhood

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In The Heights

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

Stars: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits

Writers: Quiara Alegria Hudes (screenplay), Lin-Manuel Miranda (songs)

Director: Jon M. Chu

Reviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival

“The streets are made of music,” Anthony Ramos sings near the outset of In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s love letter to the people, places, and culture of Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

But there’s no need to stop there. In this joyously tuneful adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, not only are the streets singing; so are the sidewalks, the tenements, the very air this colorful collection of endearing characters breathe.

The movie musical is an especially tenacious critter. Every few years, someone declares movie musicals — the old-fashioned kind, where people stop what they’re doing to burst into glorious song — an extinct art form. But then a film like In the Heights comes along to confirm what musical lovers have known since the days of Gilbert and Sullivan: That deep inside every soul there floats a personal play list. With every curve life throws us, with every small triumph, there’s a song for that. Movie musicals don’t just transport us to an external realm of song and dance; they help us excavate our own human instinct to face the future with a melody, be it merry or morose.

Indeed, it seems everyone we meet In the Heights navigates life on a sea of song. There’s Usnavi, played by Ramos — a man whose smile could illuminate even the city-wide blackout that propels the story. He’s the manager of a neighborhood bodega, but like all good musical characters, he has a dream: to restore his late father’s seaside bar in his native Dominican Republic. Then there’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a storefront manicurist who longs to be a fashion designer. Meanwhile, handsome Benny (Corey Hawkins) desires nothing more than to find a way to woo Nina (Leslie Grace), the woman of his dreams, who happens to be the daughter of his boss, Kevin (Jimmy Smits).

A widowed, self-made businessman who rose from crushing poverty, Kevin owns a car service that provides rides for local residents. (This is New York City — who owns a car?) He has sacrificed mightily to send Nina to Stanford University, but his dream of seeing her graduate is threatened by the unfortunate fact that, in contrast to just about everyone else in this story, Nina has no discernible ambition other than a crippling desire not to fail. Her journey toward discovering a driving motivation provides a powerful counterpoint to the incurable dreamers who surround her on the streets of Washington Heights.

Running like a silken thread through these stories and others is an engaging and memorable song score by Miranda — who wrote the stage version of In the Heights prior to changing the world with his mega-musical Hamilton. The songs range from rap to ballad to Broadway showstopper, and in each case Miranda’s chosen musical form fills out its particular setting like ground pork in a chimichurri burger. Choreographer Christopher Scott, of TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, shows a steady hand whether he’s keeping hundreds of performers in perfect sync at a city pool or channeling Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding by defying gravity with a pas de deux on the walls of a New York apartment house.

Steering the ship is director Jon M. Chu, whose long experience creating musical features for Justin Bieber and breathing life into what could have been shameless caricatures in Crazy Rich Asians is put to good use.

Timing out at 143 minutes, In The Heights is, of course, subject to my famous “Two Hour Rule,” which automatically deducts points for every minute a film runs beyond the 120-minute mark. The fact is, In The Heights’ slender storyline would under normal circumstances barely sustain itself beyond 90 minutes — however, that would mean somehow excising any number of rousing dance numbers and several songs (fans of the stage show are already complaining about a half-dozen tunes being omitted).

Passionate in its devotion to all things Big Apple, In The Heights isn’t enough to get me to move to New York City, but it’s helped me understand why so many others refuse to move out.

Featured image: Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In the Heights (Warner Bros. Pictures)

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