By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda is currently best known as the creative mind and lead performer behind the critically acclaimed musical Hamilton. However, before he achieved accolades and massive success with his historically-inspired musical, Miranda did receive some respect and adoration for his stage musical adaptation, In The Heights, which was adapted from the book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. The musical serves as love letter for New York Latinx culture that takes place within the mostly Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights. Now, director John Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes have taken this rich and vibrant play and turned it into an absolutely incredible movie that nearly deserves as much praise and adoration as Hamilton.
Actor Anthony Ramos stars and shines brightly as Usnavi de la Vega, a Dominican owner of a bodega in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City. Usnavi aspires to achieve his dream of returning to his mother country where he can reopen his father’s beach-side cantina where his father once made a great living for his family in a beautiful paradise. Even though he manages to make a living and endure in NYC, he dreams bigger and works hard to achieve the success his father once had. Nevertheless, there is one special reason he could stay and that reason is his love and adoration for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera).
Vanessa has dreams of her own too. Even though she works in a lowly position at the local beauty salon, she has the talent to become a successful fashion designer. Her dreams involve leaving her neighborhood for Manhattan where her designs can take the world by storm. Meanwhile, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), the only neighborhood resident to leave Washingon Heights for a college education at Stanford, returns home. Nina, unfortunately did not have such a good experience, having become distraught and disillusioned by the prejudice she encountered during her first year away.
With amazing songs, fantastic storytelling, and superb direction, the film version of In The Heights is the cinematic experience that deserves to have the masses flood the cineplex for a wonderful theatrical journey. Chu and his exceptional crew and cast have transformed what undoubtedly is a tremendous musical play into a feature film that immerses its audience in a very real and organic world. From the gorgeous cinematography by Alice Brooks to the editing by Myron Kerstein, John Chu’s adaptation of the Lin-Manuel play is a thoroughly joyful and beautiful celebration of New York Latinx culture.
Chu and his casting director have chosen wonderfully by casting Lin-Manuel Miranda regular Anthony Ramos in the lead role of Usnavi. He is an absolutely talented and charismatic performer that has the musical talent to sing, rap, and act the hell out of Usnavi. As his love interest, actor Melissa Barrera is incredible as the passionate and strong-willed Vanessa. Actor Leslie Grace shines just as beautifully as Nina Rosario, the troubled resident of the Heights who made it out of the neighborhood, but was frightened and knocked down by the outside world.
Actor Corey Hawkins, who continues to impress me with every new role he takes, is also outstanding as Benny, Nina’s one time love interest who works for her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits). Speaking of Smits, the actor performs superbly in this role, as do the entire cast including Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Dasha Polanco, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Marc Anthony.
If there is one reason to return to theaters right now, I would have to say that reason is In The Heights. Though this film will get released simultaneously in theaters and on HBOMax, this wonderful and beautiful film is best experienced on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system one can find in a cinema.