It feels like it's been a long time since we've gotten a great summer movie. It feels even longer since we've gotten a great movie musical. But In the Heights, the dazzling new film from Jon M. Chu, checks those boxes and more.
Based on the the Tony Award-winning musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda – well before he became an international icon with Hamilton – it's far more relatable, if less musically impressive, than that phenomenon.
Anthony Ramos delivers a star-making turn as Usnavi, who manages his family's bodega in Washington Heights, but dreams of restoring the nightclub his father once owned in the Dominican Republic. In an immediately gripping opening number ("In the Heights"), we meet the most important characters and learn what drives them. This is hard to do, but these performers make it look easy.
This is a movie all about dreams, but not big ones. Sueñitos, Usnavi calls them. His love interest Vanessa (a luminous Melissa Barrera) wants to move closer to downtown to a nicer apartment and start her own fashion line. His best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants to take over the business from Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and woo Kevin's daughter Nina (Leslie Grace). She's visiting from Stanford, where she feels out of place but still pressured to succeed. She's the first person from her family to go to college. Watching over all of them is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the emotional lynchpin of the film. Her solo number, performed in a subway tunnel, is incredibly moving.
But while the music and acting is exceptional, where the film really shines is in the staging by Chu and choreographer Christopher Scott. Many dance numbers feature dozens, even hundreds of extras, all pulling off impressive moves. But even in more intimate scenes, like a duet between Nina and Benny, there's such imagination. They dance up and down the side of a building as the sun sets on their barrio. It's pure movie magic.
The film does take a few narrative shortcuts that probably played better on stage. Arguments can arise out of nowhere and epiphanies can happen just as quickly. But there's such a pervasive sense of place and environment that it doesn't matter. Even if the characters are breaking a sweat, the movie never does.
With incredible dance numbers, a heartfelt story and an insanely talented (and insanely hot) cast, there's absolutely nothing more you could ask for from a big summer movie. In the Heights was worth the wait.
*This film is available in theaters and on HBO Max.