"The streets were made of music" is a refrain you'll hear loud and clear in Jon M Chu's In the Heights, his vibrant, vivid take on Lin-Manuel Miranda's award-winning stage musical.
Co-written in 2008 with Quiara Alegria Hudes, this was the show that launched Miranda, before he wrote the worldwide phenomenon Hamilton. Evidently his most personal work, it's a love letter to Washington Heights, the largely Dominican Republic-populated borough in upper Manhattan where Miranda grew up.
In his first film since 2018's Crazy Rich Asians became a phenomenon all of its own, Chu admirably drags In the Heights from stage to screen. Arriving in a year when Steven Spielberg will also bring West Side Story back to cinemas, this is a richly evocative work – the sights and sounds of this blue collar 'hood bursting into life.
Set across three days, before a blackout will strip the city of its power (but not its resilience), those streets indeed ring out with salsa and reggaeton-infused numbers.
Narrating the story is Usnavi, the owner of a local bodega (or grocery store), who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic but also holds a candle for Vanessa, a would-be fashion designer. So the line goes: “You can’t walk two blocks without bumping into someone’s big plans.”
It’s a story about dreamers and schemers, but Miranda and Hudes (who scripts here) have created such charming characters, there’s no ego among the working-class Heights folk.
Playing Usnavi is Anthony Ramos, who featured in the first Hamilton cast and played Lady Gaga's best friend in A Star is Born. He brings that same wide-eyed innocence to Usnavi, though he's far from alone in this. Mexican actress Melissa Barrera, who plays Vanessa, is a delight to watch.
So, too, is newcomer Leslie Grace, who plays Nina, the local-girl-made-good – until, that is, she drops out of the prestigious Stanford University.
Opposite to Usnavi and Vanessa’s will-they-won’t-they romance, Nina is embroiled with Benny, who works for her father Kevin (veteran star Jimmy Smits) at the local cab stand.
The one major black character in the story, Benny is played by Corey Hawkins, who came to attention as rap star Dr Dre in the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton.
Chu, together with choreographer Christopher Scott, does a fine job in bringing the musical numbers to screen, particularly 96,000.
Sung when a winning lottery ticket is sold at Usnavi’s shop, it ends up with several hundred extras in a local outdoor swimming pool in a Busby Berkeley-style sequence. Sheer joy, you might say (and for those wondering if Miranda changed anything, he drops the reference to Donald Trump from that song, originally written back in 2005 before he became president).
The story doesn’t shirk politics, however, and takes on serious local issues, such as gentrification.
In the Heights is "the story of a block that's disappearing", we're told, though it never feels overly worthy in its telling. Largely, it's a film about community and the power of the collective, a theme that surely resonates after a year in which so many people have been isolated.
It’s notably prominent in the scenes following the blackout, as crowds gather and chant: “We’re not powerless. We are powerful.”
While Miranda only makes a cameo turn here as a street vendor named Piragua Guy, his empathy for his fellow Heights residents shines through every line, every song, every beat.
No matter if you’ve never been to New York or Washington Heights, this musical has an infectious rhythm to it that might just have you leaping from your seat and dancing in the aisles.