“In the Heights,” now playing in theatres, is a joyful movie based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony award-winning musical, that will make you feel better by the end of the movie than you did when it began. Energetic, exultant and empathetic, it feels like a long weekend away from real life.
A series of connected stories, “In the Heights” transcends its Broadway bound beginnings with a production cut loose from the confines of the stage. Shot on the streets of Washington Heights, New York, the story of a bodega, gentrification, a winning lottery ticket, love, community and the dreams of its characters is lovingly painted in big, bright colors by director John M. Chu.
The spider-web of a story weaves in and out of its character’s lives, centering around bodega owner Usnavi, played by the charismatic Anthony Ramos. Like almost everyone in the film Usnavi has a dream of a life beyond his neighborhood, and, in a sentiment borrowed from another famous musical, soon, most everyone discovers there’s no place like home.
“In the Heights” is a story of the immigrant experience that touches on the DREAM Act and fear of deportation, but is more concerned with its characters and their day dreams of creating better lives for themselves. It’s a story of resilience, of hope and it’s a tonic during these pandemic times when it seems the media, both social and mainstream, are incapable of delivering anything but unsettling news.
In an eager cast, Olga Merediz, who reprises her Broadway role as the neighborhood’s grandmother Abuela Claudia, and Melissa Barrera as Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa, are standouts.
The sheer spectacle of it all, however, may be the real star. Chu’s camera is in constant motion, capturing the many ensemble dance numbers that accompany the soundtrack’s hip-hop, salsa, merengue, soul and R&B, in an eye-popping manner. The Busby Berkeley-style “96,000” number, shot at a public swimming pool is a total throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age, as is a terrifically staged gravity-defying dance on the side of a building.
It doesn’t all work, however. A framing device that sees Usnavi tell his story to a group of kids is clunky and the opening number, “In the Heights,” an almost eight-minute set-up to the story, is stylish but overstays its welcome.
Still, those are small issues in an invigorating crowd pleaser that offers heart and uplift in almost every frame.