“In the Heights” is an electrifying amalgamation of song, dance, and culture that challenges you to remain seated. Based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway smash and directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), this is the story of a bodega owner in New York’s Washington Heights named Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) who dreams of returning to his homeland in the Dominican Republic. Of course, it’s complicated by several factors including his affection for childhood friend Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who also has big dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Filled with vibrant characters and irresistible melodies, the heat generated by the spirited musical is going to make this summer one for the record books.

Review

IN THE HEIGHTS (2021)
Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco
Directed by Jon M. Chu

Situated in the uppermost part of Manhattan, in an area that has become 70% Hispanic thanks to the number of Dominican immigrants who settled in the neighborhood that runs from 155th St to 193rd St, “In the Heights” begins with the 168 BPM title track as narrator Usnavi begins his day by chasing off Graffiti Pete (Noah Catala) before opening up shop at the corner bodega. In rapid cadence, our young protagonist introduces us to lifelong resident Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) while addressing the growing problem of gentrification before the rousing chorus kicks in.

In the heights
I flip the lights and start my day
There are fights
Endless debts
And bills to pay

After making a splash as Lady Gaga’s BFF Ramon in 2018’s “A Star is Born” and appearing in films that include “Godzilla: King of Monsters” and “Honest Thief” opposite Liam Neeson, Anthony Ramos returns in a star-making performance doing what he loves the most, singing and dancing. After appearing in the stage version of “In the Heights” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” on Broadway, the New York actor embraces the limelight with an unforgettable portrayal of Usnavi, a role he was born to play.

“Heights” is filled with wonderful performances that include Mexican actress and former telenovela star Melissa Barrera who made her mark playing Lyn on the Starz series “Vida.” She is mesmerizing as Vanessa, and then there’s Corey Hawkins who played Dr. Dre in 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton.” You may remember him from appearing on TV’s “The Walking Dead” and “24: Legacy” but you’ve never seen him sing and dance so eloquently. As Benny, the Rosario car service dispatcher who pines for Nina (Leslie Grace), the daughter of his boss Kevin (Jimmy Smits), Hawkins has an undeniable charisma that matches his talent.

Grace as the brave and smart Nina, who much to her father’s displeasure just dropped out of Stanford, delivers a strong performance as the conflicted dreamer who successfully made it out of the neighborhood but returns home unsure of her place in the world.

Miranda wrote “In the Heights” while attending college almost a decade before the musical made its Broadway debut in 2008 after morphing from a one-act show to a vibrant production that tied the memorable songs together by author Quiara Alegría Hudes’ story. The Tony and Grammy-winning play is now the must-see movie of the summer and the best reason to venture back into a theater after a year of pandemic-driven at-home premieres.

America is a nation of immigrants and part of the reason why “Heights” is relatable to everyone, not just the Latinx community. We are a nation of dreamers, who like the film’s characters, are struggling through the daily grind to find our place in this world. The songs are terrific, and director Jon M. Chu —who’s preparing to tackle the film version of “Wicked” — knocks it out of the ballpark, plus Christopher Scott’s choreography is dazzling to view.

Look for Miranda’s cameo as the Piragua vendor selling his ice-cold treats and make sure you stick around during the end credits for an added bonus.

(4 stars)

Opens Friday, June 11 in theaters and HBO Max

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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