Lin-Manuel Miranda musical soars to new 'Heights' in film adaptation

  • Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) nurtures his dreams in the film adaptation of "In the Heights," in theaters and on HBO Max Thursday.

    Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) nurtures his dreams in the film adaptation of "In the Heights," in theaters and on HBO Max Thursday. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

 
 
Updated 6/10/2021 6:49 AM

"In the Heights" -- ★ ★ ★

On Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda's rapt, Tony Award-winning soap-operatic musical "In the Heights" could never achieve the level of sheer jubilation and wowie-pazzowie spectacle that explodes in the sightly overstuffed 143-minute silver screen adaptation.

 

Under Jon Chu's kinetic direction, "In the Heights" dazzles not necessarily with its originality, but with its selective inspiration gleaned from other musicals.

In Upper Manhattan's bustling Washington Heights, a jam-packed production number pays tribute to the great Busby Berkeley with a God's eye view of Christopher Scott's crackling choreography.

A cab company owner (Jimmy Smits) tries to keep his Washington Heights business afloat in the dance-filled film "In the Heights."
A cab company owner (Jimmy Smits) tries to keep his Washington Heights business afloat in the dance-filled film "In the Heights." - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Charismatic local denizens Benny and Nina (Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace) defy the laws of gravity in a lyrically fantastic, high-rise nod to Fred Astaire's classic wall-climbing dance from "Royal Wedding."

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Even the opening segment introducing us to the Heights' ensemble of working-class Latinos recalls "Working," a musical based on Studs Terkel's book.

Usnavi -- a bodega owner named after a U.S. Navy ship seen by his immigrant parents upon their arrival in America -- becomes our guide into this energized, rap-and-dance world.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" explodes with music and dance in its film adaptation.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" explodes with music and dance in its film adaptation. - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Played by an ultra-charming Anthony Ramos, Usnavi loosely frames the plot with his dream to one day return to the Dominican Republic and purchase the beach-front cafe owned by his late father.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But what will happen to his longtime crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose dreams to become a downtown fashion designer don't include him?

Meanwhile, Nina's widower dad (Jimmy Smits) strives to keep his cab business running, with Benny employed as a dispatcher.

"In the Heights" comes with a who's who of performers fans will recognize from the original stage production, "Rent," the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" and Miranda's hit masterpiece "Hamilton." (Miranda played Usnavi on Broadway. Here he pushes a cart to sell shaved-ice treats in the neighborhood.)

Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" opens in theaters Thursday and is also available on HBO Max.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" opens in theaters Thursday and is also available on HBO Max. - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

If "Heights" fails to match the sophistication, finesse and flair of "Hamilton," Alice Brooks' caffeinated camera work (check out its exquisite use of reflections) and Myron Kerstein's crisp editing pick up the slack.

So, do we really need a mystery winner of a $96,000 lottery ticket (sold at Usnavi's store) to keep us hooked through the end of the show?

• • •

Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Directed by: Jon M. Chu

Other: A Warner Bros. release. In theaters and on HBO Max. Rated PG-13 for language, suggestive references. 143 minutes

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