‘In the Heights’ makes a splash on screen with Jon M. Chu’s film of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    June 9, 2021
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    Lights up on In the Heights, the Tony-winning musical that turned then-unknown composer/performer Lin-Manuel Miranda into a bonafide Broadway star, years before he would achieve worldwide renown for a little-show-called Hamilton. Now, his debut musical is getting the Hollywood treatment, and thanks to director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), the barrio feels more vibrant and festive than ever. 

    The musical centers on a tight-knit Dominican community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, anchored by the local bodega owner Usnavi and his friends and chosen family, including his surrogate Abuela Claudia, the matriarch of the community; his young cousin Sonny; the local salon owner Daniela; Kevin Rosario of Rosario’s Car Service and his daughter Nina and right-hand man Sonny; and his crush and fashion entrepreneur Vanessa.

    Like the stage show, the musical is a rich slice-of-life snapshot of this community’s daily lives and their “sueñitos” (dreams) and what those aspirations means for their heritage, their family, and their sense of belonging. In Chu’s hand, the rich musical score becomes the soundtrack of the streets, as brooms, hydrants, and more create the sonic fabric of the movie.

    Chu also leans into the surreal, creating song sequences that read half dream ballet, half music video, as the characters explore alternate or past realities for themselves, particularly in solo numbers. For example, as Nina Rosario walks the streets of her hometown after returning from college, she chases a representation of her younger self running along the sidewalk. Without giving too much away, the narrative framing device of Usnavi recounting the neighborhood’s tales to a group of children on the beach, also has a dream-like flair. 

    Quiara Alegría Hudes’s script has seen a few updates from its Broadway debut. The Rosario family is now just Kevin and Nina, without Camila, and her song “Enough” as well as Kevin’s song “Inutil” don’t make the cut onscreen. Hudes dive deeper into the characters’ motivations and backstories onscreen, exploring Usnavi’s family connection to the DR in more depth and Vanessa’s downtown fashion designer aspirations take new shape and format in the film. 

    The story has also received more timely and contemporary additions, with the incorporation of the Dreamer’s Act into Sonny’s backstory, lending a pressing and important cause to the character’s social justice roots. 

    The cast brings these characters to roaring life on screen, with standout performances from Hamilton original cast member Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, Olga Merediz returning to her Tony-nominated role as Abuela Claudia, Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela. However, the piece truly feels like an ensemble effort, and every performer is suited for their role. 

    Although the film clocks in at almost two and a half hours, it never drags, and the beat keeps pressing on. Whether you’re harboring a "little sueñito” while “scraping by” or looking for the warmth and comfort of a chosen family after a difficult year, In the Heights is just the ticket. 

    In the Heights is in theatres and on HBOMax from June 11.