Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius and if he had not received a single award, it would not have mattered. A genius is a genius.
In this film adaption of his Tony Award-winning play “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda concentrates on the predominantly Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights. This is way uptown for most New Yorkers. Through his eyes, we see and hear the thoughts of first-generation immigrants from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the D.R. told over a few hot summer days in el barrio. Directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”).
Chu delivers a joyous, upbeat and inspirational movie filled with a rainbow of Latinos playing Latinos, peppered with references to their shared culture and the Caribbean culture, giving us a peek into the food, the fashion, and above all else, the music.
“In the Heights” was workshopped in 2005, was staged Off Broadway (2007), then moved to Broadway in 2008. That’s when Miranda stepped into the history books.
The movie version of “In the Heights” was shot on the streets of Washington Heights. Authentic from A to Z, the story focuses on the story told by Dominican American Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), and in his memory, his “Washington Heights” is clean, neat, and almost Disney-eque. No shade: it’s not at all, but it’s a movie so go with it, you won’t be unhappy.
Through the power of movie magic, we still get the feel of this section with 2D storefronts providing a view of the George Washington Bridge, onstage, of course.
Usnavi sits on the beach and tells the story in the past tense to a group of interested kids.
Chu treats the material like a modern fairy tale and he keeps the film moving fast with the first song “Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day” setting the tone.
Usnavi opens his bodega—breaking the fourth wall, talking to the camera as the people that shape his world pour into his store. Returning from her role on Broadway as Abuela Claudia is Olga Merediz, a Tony nominee from the original Broadway cast; cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV); local car service owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits); college girl Nina (Leslie Grace) and ex-boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works at her dad’s dispatch; and the object of Usnavi’s crush, aspiring fashionista Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Most purchase lottery tickets, and before long, Usnavi learns that he’s sold a winner, giving the opening to the show’s popular song “96,000,” in which the characters dream about what they’d do with that kind of money.
Usnavi and Vanessa’s relationship in New York is complicated, since both want to leave the Heights: She paints nails at a salon but aspires to a life downtown becoming a fashion designer, and he wants to return to the Dominican Republic to rebuild his father’s bar. Using a lively local nightclub, a display of sexy, Latino-infused courtship, misunderstandings are quickly smoothed out and then—the citywide blackout.
“In the Heights” highlights the important conflicts that many immigrants face when relocating, stuck between living the American dream and the strong desire to go back to their homeland, rich, successful and wise.
It also makes sage points that family isn’t always about blood relatives.
In this spirited community, life goes on. Some people come, and others go: Nina drops out of Stanford to find herself, living with her people, whereas beauty shop owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is forced out by gentrification and unreasonable and unfair rent hikes.
Gentrification is an ugly word that describes an even uglier fact.
There is no missing the fact that his film acknowledges how hard immigrants must work for their place in this country. There is also no missing the fact that the film is packed with things that speak to the culture, refusing to become a homogenized people.
Director Chu, not Latino, does understand the themes of assimilation.
Miranda appears as the piragua guy, making money with his shaved ice cart which blends perfectly with the images that make the neighborhood: the street art, the old men on their stoops, the kids splashing in the fountain of open fire hydrants. Things that say home to so many of us. There is a joy watching Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and living in one of the hardest cities in America. There is also inspiration and a life lesson to be learned. They carved out their place in Washington Heights and filled it with life, love, song, and hope.