In the Heights, one of my most anticipated movies of 2021, finally makes its way to theaters from director Jon M.Chu. The Warner’s Bros. release is an adaptation of the musical of the same name by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Lights up on Washington Heights! The scent of a Cafecito Caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies this vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is the likable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines, and sings about a better life.
In addition to Usnavi, the other residents of Washington Heights include his best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and business owner Kevin (Jimmy Smits). Some of the lovely ladies of Washington Heights are college student Nina (Leslie Grace), who also happens to be Kevin’s daughter, and Benny’s ex-girlfriend. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the object of Benny’s affection and community matriarch “Abuela” (Olga Merediz).
After a colorful opening credit, In the Heights begins with Usnavi telling a story to some local kids. The moment Anthony Ramos appears on screen and cracks a million-dollar smile, the audience is thrust into the colorful world of Washington Heights. Ramos, who portrayed the role of Usnavi in a Kennedy Center production of In the Heights, is right at home in the part, and I’m optimistic this will open up even more doors for the talented actor. Usnavi is the heart of the film, and no matter what your background is, you can relate to his story of chasing every facet of your dreams.
In the role of Benny, Corey Hawkins gets a chance to highlight his singing voice. I was so impressed with Hawkins’ vocals that I would not mind seeing him in a biopic of an R&B singer. Hawkins, a Washington D.C. native, brings the Chocolate City swagger to the role of Benny, and it is a shame that so much of Benny’s character is absent from the film adaptation. Jimmy Smith and Gregory Diaz IV were also enjoyable in their roles, as each character has a scene-stealing moment.
Leslie Grace, whose music I was not familiar with, is also a star in the making in terms of cinema. The singer has a natural around-the-way girl with a heart of gold that combines well with her beautiful voice. Melissa Barrera is good as well, and I fully understand why she is the object of Usnavi’s desire. Olga Merediz returns to the role she originated on Broadway, and her performance of “Paciencia Y Fe” is worth the price of admission alone.
Lin Manuel Miranda’s strength in music is in the infectious groove and the way he combines numerous genres. Rap, R&B, and Latin music are all on display in the film, and I was tapping my feet throughout multiple numbers. The music bodes well for Christopher Scott, who worked with director Jon M. Chu on two films in the Step Up franchise.
Kudos must also go to Quiara Alegría Hudes’ script, as she never lets the residents’ personal struggles get them down. Instead, the characters find ways to see the best in everything. Furthermore, the film adaptation never tries to force a story that is not there (i.e., Cats). Instead, the movie just further develops the strength of the characters and the relationships.
Without a doubt, In the Heights is one of the best movies released in 2021 thus far. With a toe-tapping soundtrack, heartfelt acting, and positive message, I highly recommend it. That said, while the film is showing on HBO MAX for the first thirty days of release, I genuinely advise you to experience it on the big screen.
Final Grade: A+
In the Heights opens in theaters today and is showing exclusively on HBO MAX until 10 July.