June 17, 2021

‘In the Heights’ soars as musical celebration of NYC life



Rated PG-13. At AMC Boston Common, AMC South Bay, Regal Fenway, Landmark Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner Theatre, AMC Assembly Row and on HBO Max.

Grade: A-

A modern-day “West Side Story” minus the Jets, “In the Heights” is a joyous, hip-shaking, rhyming celebration of a similar Manhattan neighborhood, this one nestled beside the Hudson River beneath the George Washington Bridge. It is not only a Latino neighborhood, it is a Latino universe. It is diverse within its diversity. The film’s narrator and leading man is Usnavi de la Vega (multi-talented Anthony Ramos). Usnavi was named by his late father after a Navy boat he spied in New York harbor. Usnavi runs the local bodega, where several characters make their entrances. The film is based on the 2008 Broadway musical nominated for 13 Tonys, winning four, including best musical. The play and film feature music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was raised near Washington Heights and plays a street vendor in the film, and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who also wrote the screenplay.

(L -r) Corey Hawkins as Benny, Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny and Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘In The Heights,’ a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Usnavi’s right-hand man at the bodega is his adolescent cousin Sonny (an appealing Gregory Diaz IV), who has a beer-addled father (Marc Anthony). But Sonny finds a more nurturing and attentive paternal figure in the hard-working Usnavi, who dreams of returning to the beach and the beachfront bar his father ran in the Dominican Republic. Usnavi’s love interest is the beautiful hairdresser Vanessa (a breakout turn by Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer, who never has to pay for her morning coffee. Also stopping in every morning is Benny (a charismatic Corey Hawkins), who works as a dispatcher at Rosario’s Cars for owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits in fine form). Benny is in love with Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), an unhappy student at USC, who is visiting home.

“In the Heights” will remind many of “West Side Story.” For example there is a song sung by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who is everyone’s grandmother. She sings of “paciencia y fe” and the hardships endured both at her first home and second. The film tells the story of three fateful days leading up to a blackout. Lovers will defy gravity. Instead of the more conventional songs written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for “West Side Story,” “In the Heights” features the sung-and-rapped style of Miranda, familiar to fans of “Hamilton,” and like “Hamilton” “In the Heights” has nary a white character.

A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘In The Heights,’ a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

With many characters striding toward the camera through the Heights singing about themselves and their dreams, “In the Heights” also has a palpable Walt Whitman vibe. The plot further involves an unclaimed lottery ticket, Vanessa’s dream of her own studio and salon owner Daniella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and her need to move her shop to the Bronx. That’s a lot. But the 143-minute film has time enough for them (and then some). The galvanic choreography and spectacular dancing skills of the cast are the film’s superpower. The Busby Berkeley-esque-evoking number “96,000” was filmed at Highbridge Park in the Heights over two days by director and USC graduate Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) with 500 extras, and it is only one of several such eye-popping numbers featuring regular-looking people, who are by some miracle great dancers. “In the Heights” is a love song to New York City and its people.

(“In the Heights” contains profanity, suggestive language and no violence.)

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