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Why ‘In the Heights’ lives up to hype: Hot musical is year’s best movie

Why ‘In the Heights’ lives up to hype: Hot musical is year’s best movie

Running time: 143 minutes. Rated PG-13 (some language and suggestive references). In theaters and on HBO Max June 10.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has done it again! Again!

The “Hamilton” creator’s blissful new movie “In the Heights,” which is based on his Tony Award-winning 2008 musical, is the best film of the year so far. It’s also easily the best movie-musical since the Oscar-winning “Chicago” from way back in 2003. Please excuse me while I look up some synonyms for “best.”

Romantic and funny, the film — out Thursday in theaters and on HBO Max — is a dazzling ode to New York City and Washington Heights, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood where Miranda grew up in and still lives today. It’s a vibrant Latino community whose residents have roots primarily in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, which is where the main character Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) hails from.

“In the Heights” has always been unusual as far as Broadway musicals go. Unlike glitzier fare such as “Hello, Dolly!” or “Les Misérables,” these characters’ troubles are far more commonplace: a dad selling his business to pay for his daughter’s college education, a teen trying to get citizenship, a power outage.  

No Parisian phantoms cut down a giant chandelier. Here, a cashier fixes the refrigerator motor.

But the residents’ daily struggles, told through Miranda’s infectious rap, R&B and Latin music, break your heart, and their resilience lifts your spirit. In fact, on-screen, “In the Heights” packs more of a punch than the show ever did onstage, which is a rarity. 

That’s in large part thanks to Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), the most reliably entertaining director working today, who shot the film in the real Washington Heights. Now the story not only pulses with energy and vitality, but it oozes authenticity, too. 

Clever Chu turns tiny things we take for granted — shop windows, manhole covers, fire escapes — into movie magic. It’s especially satisfying to see actual locales such as Highbridge Pool or subway platforms become sparkling Hollywood sets for fabulous dances choreographed by Alice Brooks. 

"In The Heights," starring Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barbera, is one of the most dazzling movie musicals in years.
“In the Heights,” starring Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera, is one of the most dazzling movie musicals in years.
Macall Polay

Chu also wisely cast lesser-known young actors in the parts, rather than A-listers or pop stars. Ramos’ Usnavi is the charmingly frenetic owner of a bodega, which is the center of his community. Everybody comes to Usnavi and his cousin Sonny (a sweet and funny Gregory Diaz IV) for their coffee, Lotto tickets, Cokes, condoms, Ben & Jerry’s and most everything else you could possibly want. Ramos is so damn lovable in this role. He’s famous for “Hamilton,” but now he’s proven himself a bona fide leading man.

Usnavi is crushing hard on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, a spectacular find), an aspiring fashion designer who desperately wants to move downtown to Greenwich Village. Meanwhile, her best friend Nina (Leslie Grace) has returned home from her first semester at Stanford, where she didn’t fit in, to her disappointed dad (Jimmy Smits). As Usnavi’s abuela, Olga Merediz has the most emotional heft. Corey Hawkins, meanwhile, sings smoothly as his best friend Benny, who works as a car-service dispatcher.

Trust me — it’s been ages since you’ve seen actors have this much fun in a movie.

And that jubilation is why this is the one film that I’m glad was delayed by the pandemic. It’s more potent now to watch hustling, passionate, young people dancing in packed streets at the peak of summer, hop on and off trains and gossip in a salon. As New York reopens, think of “In the Heights” as the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

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