In the Heights couldn’t be more perfectly timed. For one thing, summer movies don’t get much more summery than this one, which takes place during a record-breaking New York heat wave. For another, this vibrant screen adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda stage musical captures something we’ve largely gone without over the past year: a joyous sense of togetherness.
This is the most socially undistanced movie I’ve seen in months. The action unfolds in crowded store aisles and gossip-filled beauty salons where everyone knows everyone. The musical numbers, which blend hip-hop, Latin pop, salsa and other styles, frequently spill out into the surrounding neighborhood. The actors become dancers in an electrifying street ballet.
A lot of this is packed into the movie’s transporting opening sequence, which brings us into this pan-Latino barrio in Washington Heights. Miranda pops up in a small role as a vendor, selling shaved ice out of a pushcart, but our real guide to this Upper Manhattan neighborhood is Usnavi de la Vega, played by a terrific Anthony Ramos.
Usnavi owns a popular corner bodega that’s especially prized for its café con leche. As he raps about the challenges of running his scrappy little business in a place that’s rapidly being gentrified, he’s joined by a chorus of voices from the neighborhood singing about their own struggles to get by.
In the Heights is about the people struggling to make a living in the working-class Latinx barrio (neighbourhood) of Washington Heights in New York City.
There’s Usnavi, who owns a run-down bodega (store) and employs his self-assured younger cousin Sonny.
Usnavi is in love with Vanessa but she desperately wants to move out of the neighbourhood.
In the Heights may not be a great movie, but it’s a pretty great moviegoing experience. There are lovely moments here, like when Benny and Nina do a surreal, gravity-defying dance along the side of an apartment building. There are also exhilarating ones, like when the neighborhood, reeling from a heat-wave-triggered blackout, pulls together to throw the mother of all block parties.