Review: Infectious movie musical 'In the Heights' joyfully salsas past its shortcomings

Brian Truitt

If you’re gonna stage a movie musical, you sign on Lin-Manuel Miranda for the tunes – that’s just science at this point. What makes “In the Heights” so joyfully infectious, though, is marrying his songs with director Jon M. Chu’s uncanny knack for pulling off massive production numbers.

A movie version of Miranda’s first Tony-winning phenomenon – before he famously outdid himself with “Hamilton” – “In the Heights” (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters and on HBO Max now) captures the bustling, changing multicultural Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan with a dizzying array of song and dance styles, from hip-hop to Latin influences. The musical sequences entertain as you try to keep the many lead characters and their intertwining stories straight in between. The film also offers a bunch of talented fresh faces, a star-is-born showcase for Anthony Ramos and a reminder of how much Jimmy Smits rules. 

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Anthony Ramos stars as a New York bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic in "In the Heights."

“Hamilton” alum Ramos stars as Usnavi, the affable owner of a corner bodega originally played by Miranda on Broadway. Wanting a better life for himself and his teen co-worker cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi has scrimped and saved his money so he can go back to the Dominican Republic, even as he harbors a not-so-secret crush for local salon girl Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a fledgling fashion designer wanting to move up in the world herself.

Various other characters and situations that befall them – from a missing lottery ticket worth $96,000 to a community-tightening blackout – have Usnavi rethinking his decision about leaving New York.

Kevin (Smits) owns the car service across the street where Usnavi's friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) works, and Kevin’s daughter/Benny’s love Nina (Leslie Grace) is home from Stanford though weighs dropping out. Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) are life partners who run the salon, though the neighborhood center for gossip is having to relocate, and Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is the wise grandmother figure for everyone in the area. (Miranda, who’s also a producer, has a small yet fun role as a mischievous traveling purveyor of piragua ice treats.)

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Stanford student Nina (Leslie Grace, center) is welcomed back to the salon by Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), Cuca (Dascha Polanco) and Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) in "In the Heights."

The screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the book for the stage musical) puts Usnavi's storyline as its de facto central plot, and Ramos’ strong multifaceted performance and his inherent likability keeps you invested through the store owner’s ups and downs. (You'll also want to see Barrera and Grace in another movie, stat.)

But treating most of the characters as leads creates a lack of focus at times, which isn’t conducive to spending quality time with the various colorful personas and their relationships – plus all the big musical sequences – even over the course of nearly two hours and a half hours.

Chu proved himself as a modern-day Busby Berkeley with the spectacular “Crazy Rich Asians” and gets to do so much more in "Heights" with a camera, creative choreography and catchy showtunes. A swimming pool is ground zero for a dance-rap throwdown with the song “96,000,” while a nightclub is where everyone salsas till they drop in into the night for “Fiesta.” 

Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, center) acts as the neighborhood's resident elder in "In the Heights."

The director experiments with the cinematography, too: There’s a really effective sequence early on where he puts a closeup on Usnavi's face longingly watching a number from a bodega window while performers hoof it in the surrounding reflection and Nina and Benny share a romantic, gravity-defying dance along the side of a building.

Just hope your time spent “In the Heights” is as enjoyable as Smits’: The iconic Latin actor seems to be having an absolute ball with the tunes and the moves. And with a musical that doesn’t shy away from tackling issues of racism and immigration, viewers will find themselves immersed in a song-filled, universally relatable story about chasing dreams and building community.