Though the cinematic summer is generally made up of blockbusters of all forms, there’s a particular joy in a crowd-pleasing movie that feels genuinely defined by its ‘summer’ status, and In the Heights is that rare pleasure. Set over a sweltering July in New York, this adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton Broadway hit is a joyous musical full of sun, sweat, swimming, and young love. Demanding to be seen on a big screen in amongst a crowd, it may be the best advert yet for returning to cinemas after lockdown.
A love letter to the mostly Latino neighbourhood of Washington Heights, In the Heights follows bodega owner Usnavi (Antonio Ramos) as he tries to scrape together enough money to fly back to the Dominican Republic and re-open his father’s old beach bar before gentrification fully destroys his New York community. This battle for belonging is felt across all of In the Heights’s ridiculously charming ensemble, from ambitious artist Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) seeking to escape to a more fashionable part of town to pride-of-the-neighbourhood Nina (Leslie Grace), visiting home from her California university but desperate to drop out and return permanently.
Everyone’s goals and dreams collide and intertwine across an eventful week of giant community parties, a hunt for a winning lottery ticket, and an extended blackout that brings both delight and terror to the Heights, almost all of which is told through a series of roof-raising musical numbers. Director Jon M Chu, a veteran of the dance-heavy Step Up series, proves a perfect fit for bringing Miranda’s ambitious tunes to the screen, retaining the buoyant and sincere energy of a Broadway production without ever feeling stagey – In the Heights is a cinematic experience through and through.
Everyone gets a moment to shine, though In the Heights is at its very best when the whole neighbourhood gets involved with some jaw-dropping mass choreography. Whether it’s a Busby Berkeley-esque dance in the community pool or a defiant protest song as the residents of the Heights rail against the destruction of their businesses and community ties, these moments will lift your heart and have you tapping along to the irresistible rhythms. In the smaller, individual moments, Ramos is an absolute superstar, bursting with charisma and sharing an electric chemistry with Barrera, though the show is stolen by Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, whose mournful song of reminiscence for her mother and childhood in Cuba makes for the whole film’s beating heart.
Outside of the songs, Quiara Alegria Hudes’s dialogue can be a bit perfunctory, adding some nice depth to the community and the wide range of the characters’ origins but mostly feeling like an obligation before the next number kicks off – and at nearly two-and-a-half hours, the script could have used a bit of trimming, or at least a Broadway-style interval. Thankfully, it’s never that long between set-pieces, and the cast are radiant, shining as brightly as the baking sun that illuminates almost every scene.
In the best way, In the Heights feels like a real throwback – an old school musical that doesn’t have a sarcastic bone in its body and relies on the talents of brilliant singers and dancers without any sort of stunt-casting. It should make instant stars of its young cast and guarantee Jon M Chu the directing gig when Hamilton is inevitably brought to the big screen – him and Lin-Manuel Miranda clearly make for a musical dream team that have delivered what will likely end up as summer’s most purely pleasurable film.