In the Heights is a vibrant, unselfconscious celebration of many things. The specific contours of a tight-knit community living in Washington Heights, Nueva York. The panoply of Spanish-language Caribbean immigrants who reshaped that parcel of land, at the tip of the island of Manhattan, in their own image. And most of all the maximalist artform pilgrims travel hundreds (if not thousands) of miles to bask in, a few subway stops due south of our title locale. In the Heights captures the lightning of a singular kind of spectacle: The Great Broadway Musical, one that’s executed on-screen with supreme love, tons of gusto and actual fireworks.

Directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and written for the screen by Quiara Alegría Hudes, In the Heights is the long-anticipated film adaptation of Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning sensation. Long delayed thanks to Covid, In the Heights arrives concurrently in theaters and on HBO Max. It’s a worthy entry to the movie-musical canon, no matter the venue. But it’s clear why Warner Bros. didn’t dump this on a streaming service during the height of the pandemic. The kinetic, cinemascopic sweep Chu brings to this material demands the biggest screen possible (not to mention a state-of-the-art audio setup). I was lucky enough to see the film in a theater. The combination of Miranda’s enthusiastic numbers and being back at the movies made for a uniquely transportive experience, one that will be impossible to replicate once our collective quarantine recedes into distant memory.

In the Heights opens with a framing device that finds our protagonist, Usnavi (the excellent Anthony Ramos), on a beach recalling the events to come to a group of adorable moppets. His seaside story time is presumably meant to add lingering tensions for the viewer. (Wait, why isn’t Usnavi still in the Heights?) This baffling update to the source material (and Usnavi’s persistent and intrusive voiceover narration) is an unnecessary distraction. No matter, it’s merely a minor disruption. We’re in good hands once the setting shifts to that slice of New York City presented on posters and marketing materials. Thanks to an exuberant MGM-style opener, which matches the initial rush of La La Land’s freeway extravaganza, the people and places we’ll explore during the film’s splaying runtime are introduced with grandiosity and flourish.

This bundle of human stories is, no doubt, treated with requisite care. Usnavi, the owner of the local bodega, seeks the affection of an aspiring fashion designer named Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), with the help of his younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). The neighborhood prodigal Nina (Leslie Grace) returns from Stanford University and unexpectedly upends the lives of her well-to-do father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and his business deputy Benny (Corey Hawkins). A Greek chorus of salon workers (including Daphne Rubin-Vega of Rent fame) provide armchair commentary along the way. An adoptive abuela (Olga Merediz) adds a beating heart, and connective tissue, to the whole affair.

And yet, In the Heights soars highest, not with character development, but with its big, marvelous set pieces. Their inspiration includes the bulk of West Side Story, Beyonce’s incomparable 2016 BET awards performance, Inception’s topsy-turvy fight sequences, and the glorious song-and-dance of Bjork’s best video. Be warned: If you thought Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s culture-conquering, Broadway follow-up) was too corny, In the Heights is an even bigger dose of high-fructose syrup. Like a cold can of bodega soda, it’s either instantly pleasing or unbearably cloying. Everything boils down to a matter of taste. I have a sweet tooth, so this one went down easy.

Like a cold can of bodega soda, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights is either instantly pleasing or unbearably cloying. Everything boils down to a matter of taste. If you have a sweet tooth, it’ll go down easy.
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A Vibrant Celebration
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