"The Heights", as every Manhattanite knows, refer to New York's Washington Heights, the highest natural neighborhood in Manhattan, one of New York's ever-changing communities, where General George Washington once had his fort and where his namesake bridge beautifies the sky - and which has been for decades now a densely populated Latino neighborhood, pulsating in summer with the omnipresent sounds of Caribbean and other Latin American music. In the Heights is the movie version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning Broadway show, Miranda's musical prequel, so to speak, to his much more famous Hamilton. I haven't been to a Broadway play in decades, and so I never saw In the Heights on stage, but the film version is not only everything reviewers have raved about but is so obviously, so naturally suited to the artistry of the big screen. Indeed, In the Heights is big in every way, an exuberant, 143-minute return to the best expressions of the classic musical and also a grandiose celebration of the glorious panorama of urban life and of the New York immigrant experience and the big American Dream that for generation after generation has inspired it.
Miranda himself plays a small part in the show as a summertime street vendor (struggling to compete with Mister Softee). The starring role of Usnavi, which Miranda originated onstage, is perfectly played by Anthony Ramos, who dreams both of returning someday to the Dominican Republic and of his local love interest, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose very different dream is to have a successful fashion career downtown. The other parallel love story features Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace), the neighborhood's academic success story and the pride of her father Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). Nina is home for the summer from Stanford, somewhat traumatized by the prejudice she experienced there and the stressful struggle of being a Latina at an elite institution - an experience previous generations of immigrants also have had to endure along the way. In the Heights is in the long tradition of movies about immigrant neighborhood life, an especially touching highlight of which is when the community's culture-carrying grandmother figure Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) sings "Paciencia y Fe" surrounded by dancers in the subway.
Dancing is one way to get through the hot, humid Manhattan summer, and there is certainly plenty of dancing in this film, dynamically choreographed, maybe most memorably in the joyful swimming pool scene.
Love doesn't quite conquer all. It seldom does. There remains injustice in the world and in particular in the immigrant experience. The electrical Blackout, around which the film is chronologically ordered, is an unsubtle metaphor for individual and community powerlessness, but also for the power inherent in community solidarity and the strength and joy that derive from it .
In the Heights was supposed to open in movie theaters a year ago. But, as with so much else, that opening had to be put on hold, as not just the theaters but our very lives were shut down by the covid pandemic. Available now, this is just what the proverbial entertainment doctor would have ordered - a splashy, exuberant, song-and-dance celebration of immigrant life, love, youthful hope, American aspiration, and the sheer joy of being alive.