After a year with almost no big-screen thrills, “In the Heights” arrives with a breathtaking bang.
Its release delayed almost exactly a year, the musical — an adaptation of “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first stage hit — arrives with both eye-popping spectacle and a sense of communal joy. In every way, it’s a balm for what’s ailed us for so many, many months.
It is, very simply, a must-see — and on the biggest screen you can find.
“In the Heights” brings to electric life a refreshingly simple, ebulliently universal story — that of the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City, bursting with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and a panoply of Brown and Black faces.
Usnavi, played with star-making charisma and exuberance by Anthony Ramos (“A Star Is Born,” “Hamilton”), is our narrator — the proprietor of a popular bodega, where his café con leche fuels the neighborhood. He’s madly in love with hairdresser Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose dreams of leaving the neighborhood for a downtown apartment and a career as a designer tend to blind her to his affections. His friend Nina (Leslie Grace) has returned home after a bumpy first year at Stanford, rejoining her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who’s willing to sacrifice considerably to help her reach her dreams, and her boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who senses her struggle.
The neighborhood also includes Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) apartment, filled with delectable food and eternal understanding, and Daniela’s (Daphne Rubin-Vega) beauty parlor, bubbling with gossip and heart.
Usnavi dreams of returning to the beaches of his Dominican home, hoping to take his teenage helper Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) so he, too, can fall in love with the homeland. Daniela’s also leaving the neighborhood, just as Vanessa hopes to, as well. Nina, studying across the country at a top-level university, is seen as the neighborhood’s great hope. It’s no spoiler to say that everyone’s expectations are reconsidered and refined.
Miranda’s music and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s script (based on the play she wrote with Miranda) also feature a swirl of cultural issues, not overwhelmingly political but instead a celebration of the American dream of possibilities and a considered critique of the challenges that can become roadblocks in the pursuit of those possibilities.
Director Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) brings this potent mix to life with a full-throated welcoming of the movie musical’s full range of possibilities. I don’t think it’s rash, in fact, to say that this is the best movie musical since “Moulin Rouge!” because “In the Heights,” like the 2001 pop melange, isn’t afraid of drawing on the fantastic traditions of Hollywood spectaculars by defying reality and embracing feeling. People don’t just break into song. Whole streets explode into dance. A local swimming pool becomes a kaleidoscopic tribute to Busby Berkeley. Young lovers, à la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, dance up the side of tenement walls.
The film’s heart is firmly on its sleeve — no surprise if you’ve seen “Hamilton” or followed Miranda on social media. He’s a revolutionary artist, but at heart, he fully believes in the democratizing power of popular culture — not to mention love, both familial and romantic. It’s all a heady, winning mix in “In the Heights” — the very definition of a blissfully fun summer movie.
(“In the Heights” is rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive references. It’s screening theatrically and on HBO Max.)