“I’m Usnavi and you’ve probably never heard my name,” declares a winery owner at the beginning of “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s infectiously lighthearted ode to his beloved Washington Heights neighborhood. “The reports on my fame are greatly exaggerated.”
Um maybe not for long. Miranda’s projects tend to attract a bit of attention.
Even in the naturally Cinderella-filled annals of musical theater, “In the Heights full movie” has an incredible backstory. It started two decades ago when a Wesleyan college student had overtime on his hands (his girlfriend was studying abroad), so he started writing a show. The play represented the Latino immigrant experience as he saw it as the son of Puerto Rican parents. And he fused the things he loved: hip hop, Latin music and dance, rap and, of course, musical theater.
The boy was Miranda, and “In the Heights” finally made it to the Tony podium, winning the award for best musical. Of course, Miranda’s own story was just beginning. His groundbreaking Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton” was years away.
Comparisons between the two are unavoidable, but they are set vastly different. “In the Heights,” directed with blatant exuberance by Jon M. Chu from a script by Quiara Alegría Hudes, does not seek to rethink American history; uses Miranda’s quick play on words and a hybrid of traditional and contemporary styles to tell the story of a community – an intersection even – through universal experiences such as invasive gentrification. This updated version also touches on the so-called “dreamers”, and a golf reference to Donald Trump was changed to one to Tiger Woods. But his main thrust remains the ties of community, family and home. (If you look closely at a song, you can even see Miranda’s parents.)
“In the Heights” also benefits from an exquisite sense of time: cultural time. The premiere was postponed for a year; the theaters are already open. “Lights up” begins the contagious opening number, and those words are perfect: the lights illuminate Washington Heights, yes, but also a revived New York, where many are little by little resuming the pre-pandemic rhythm after a miserable year, eager to have shared experiences. “In the Heights” is a work that knows how to interpret the mood of the room: a film without a hint of cynicism that, far from hiding its feelings, proudly displays them and challenges you to join the party. Two lovers suddenly dancing on the side of a building? A Busby Berkeley-style dance number in a city pool? Yes. And yes.
Usnavi, we learn, longs to return to the Dominican Republic, where her late father owned a beach kiosk. Miranda played Usnavi on stage, but the role was cast to Anthony Ramos, a “Hamilton” graduate (the one from the “ten dollar founding father” dialogue) who takes on the lead role with warmth, humor and charm.
Although the film begins with a device that frames Usnavi telling the story to some children on a beach – a choice that seems too sentimental – it kicks off in that opening issue, in which Usnavi introduces all the important characters.
There’s Grandma Claudia, the de facto matriarch of the community (Olga Merediz, who played the role on Broadway, in a deeply moving performance). There’s Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) lean, fast-talking, and funny. There’s Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the owner of a local beauty salon threatened by gentrification.
There’s Benny (Corey Hawkins, great), who works at the taxi service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). There’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whom Usnavi secretly sighs for, who works in the salon, but dreams of being a fashion designer. This eight-minute number culminates with a street dance sequence (with exuberant choreography by Christopher Scott) in downtown Washington Heights. The most surprising thing about these dancers: they have different ages and different body shapes. They look like ordinary people.
Soon Nina (singer Leslie Grace) arrives for the summer from Stanford, keeping a secret. Always the smartest girl on the block, Nina feels marginalized as a Latina student and dropped out of college, setting her on a collision course with her proud father. Another addition to the plot: young Sonny is a dreamer and his future in America is at risk. This subplot seems pretty rushed, and a street protest scene seems like an afterthought.
But the plot was always the minor part of this equation. What shines are the numbers music