With fantastic songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s hard not to be won over by In The Heights.
In The Heights (2021) Review By Mark McPherson
Published on June 16, 2021
Rating 4.5 /5
The central protagonist of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) starts this tale of Washington Heights by describing the block as a place in New York City where there is music in the streets. His words come to life as Usnavi’s tale starts him off with another day working his convenience store, where everything in the street forms a melody. Latches on gates, hoses spraying water, and cars braking and honking all form the symphony of a city that is alive with hopes, dreams, and songs in hearts. There’s a bittersweet whimsy that comes with this grand showcase involving gentrification, immigration, romance, family, and just a genuinely sweet heart, making this film one of the most profound musicals of the years.
Usnavi, a character who was literally named after his father seeing a boat that said U.S. Navy, runs a convenience store but is hoping for more. As a Dominican Republic immigrant, he’s hoping to go back home and restore his late father’s beach store, having looked back fondly on those days of his youth. That dream may be sooner than he thinks when a lawyer friend comes to him with good news. The bad news is that he’ll be departing soon and make the tough call of leaving the place he has grown to call home since he was a kid.
Usnavi has a lot of history in Washington Heights and we get to see the family that has grown up around him in such a vibrant urban landscape. His cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) helps run the shop and may just be a candidate to take it over but Sonny has other problems regarding the rights of undocumented immigrants. Usnavi’s secret love interest is the ambitious Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), hoping to climb out of working at a salon and soar to becoming a top fashion designer. His best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) works at a taxi dispatch and is hoping to maybe with the heart of the recently-returning Nina (Leslie Grace) who finds herself adrift after dropping out of college.
All of their stories swirl to create a rich tapestry of wonder and melodrama in a city that is constantly moving. There are issues of bigger businesses running out the little guy, where the block finds itself slowly deteriorating. There are problems of the rights of the people where numerous protests and marches form to fight for the safety of Latino immigrants. And as if all that weren’t enough, there’s a blackout that occurs which throws the block into darkness, lit up only by the awe-inspiring fireworks that light up the night sky.
The film is wall-to-wall musical numbers, making its 2.5-hour running time as brisk as a summer breeze. The opening number of Good Morning Usnavi is a hard tune to get out of your head, considering the introduction of such a song is sure to become a day-starting melody that’ll be lodged in the brain every morning. There’s a lot of elaborate musical numbers present that continue the story in various venues, spanning a salon of gossip to establish Nina’s connections to a day at the pool where everybody talks of winning the $96,000 lottery. The technical marvel of the film by far the sequence where Benny and Nina dance up an apartment building in an act of defying gravity that is sure to make Lionel Richie eat his heart out.
But the most emotional song is without question Paciencia y Fe, sung by the caring matriarch of Claudia (Olga Merediz). Her mental melody finds herself remarking on her history and hardships of immigrating from Cuba and what it was like growing in the city, making the tough choice of deciding whether or not it’s her time to go into the next life. It’s the most meaningful and tearful of songs that really place into perspective a lot of the heart and turmoil of the picture.
With fantastic songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s hard not to be won over by In The Heights. Despite being released on HBO Max, it’s absolutely worth venturing out to the theater for such a magical experience it weaves in a musical build to beat the summer heat.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.