Sometimes a movie is just perfect for the moment of its release. After a year indoors, and with much to mourn, the world is starting to look just a bit brighter as we can once again get together with our communities. In the Heights is a roaring ode to community—a giant production about a small place bustling with music, dance, and life. It’s a celebration of the resilience of people, as well as the love they give and receive between it all. This is the kind of movie that picks you up out of your seat, twirls you, and passes you to your next partner. For two and a half hours, it is joy incarnate.
Washington Heights is a small, predominantly Latinx neighborhood that crowns the island of Manhattan, well over a hundred blocks from the metropolis’ central tourist traps. Neighborhoods like this one are where the most true New York movies are set, and with such a wide breadth of characters going through similar crossroads of life, this snapshot of this place sets up the community dynamic as effectively as Spike Lee did with Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing. Of course, Lee’s masterpiece and Jon M. Chu’s new film were made with two very different intentions and audiences in mind—one’s a small but alarming call to action, the other a lively studio spectacle designed to make you feel good—but as far as capturing the spirit of the city, they are cinematic equals.
And “cinematic” is key to what Chu brings to the production. Too many stage-to-screen adaptations struggle to escape the confines of their smaller, more intimate counterpart, but In the Heights takes the story from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes (who nabs the screenplay credit here) right into the streets of New York City, with a massive opening number that, like La La Land’s opening freeway dance party before it, reminds you what a big Hollywood musical is supposed to look like. But unlike Damian Chazelle’s eventually melancholy ballad on the crisscross of love and fame, In the Heights keeps the numbers big and lively up until the credits roll in unabashed, crowd-pleasing form.
We meet Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) as he manages a modest bodega off of 181st Street with his younger cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). Usnavi has ambitions of moving to the Dominican Republic to reopen his deceased father’s beachside business, something the film’s awkward framing device, in which Usnavi regales a group of children with his story, tells us he’s already done. Standing in his way, however, is a crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a hairstylist with aspirations for moving to the Village to be a fashion designer. Ramos and Barrera sport a tepid yet undeniable chemistry that works as the stem from which the rest of the film sprouts.
A parallel love story, between Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace), who is visiting home after her freshman year at Stanford, similarly sees characters exploring, largely through song, what it means to leave this space that’s become so comfortable and given them so much. What dreams are worth losing that, and which aren’t? For Nina, it’s a question of discrimination. Fighting with her father (Jimmy Smits) not to go back to college, she’s running from the reality of assimilating into a mostly white university, and the prejudices that come with it. In the Heights may not be about racial discrimination in the same way that Do the Right Thing is, but the way it explores these fears from within their close-knit neighborhood eutopia offers an interesting perspective on the very human reasons it’s not easy to leave your safe space as a person of color.
Naturally, much of this is expressed through lyrics and rhythm, and of course the work of Miranda and Hudes is more than up to snuff. Every, and I mean every, musical number in the film is a winner, layered with purpose in pushing the plot or themes forward in a satisfying way while sticking firmly to the genre and offering just plain great tunes. For all the modern appeal In the Heights can muster, it is very much a classic big screen musical in the same vein as West Side Story, albeit with the music influenced by more contemporary genres. As these young adults explore the scale and reality of their dreams, the songs energize every emotion and story beat into something grand. But like La La Land, there’s a modern maturity in its resolution and the small moments throughout that point to it.
For all the leads’ talk of migrating to various other places, In the Heights is ultimately much less about where life is worth living than why. Be it love, art, or the fight for racial equity, characters old and young in the film’s deep ensemble are able to find their purpose in Washington Heights, whether they take it with them somewhere else or stay as part of an everlasting community whose spirit cannot be squashed. With a film so technically and creatively able to measure up to those lofty life questions, it’s near impossible to squash the film’s warm imprint upon leaving the theater. And yes, you should see it on the biggest screen possible. This one was more than worth the wait.