‘In the Heights’ sets the bar high for this year’s movie musicals

Big and vibrant, “In the Heights” provides summer movie-going with a joyous jolt of adrenalin, wedding the sensibilities of Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s musical with “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu’s mouth-watering imagery. Throw in a dazzling cast, and Warner Bros. has gifted audiences with what feels like just the ticket to jog them out of their pandemic doldrums — maybe all the way to a theater.

Of course, there’s no certainty in that, since the studio (like CNN, a part of WarnerMedia) will continue its practice of simultaneously dropping the film on HBO Max. Whatever the size of the screen, the result is a movie whose old-fashioned charms practically leap off of it, and whose tunes will follow many around for days on end.

The Tony Award-winning musical made its debut in 2008 with Miranda in the cast, in what amounted to a down payment for the blockbuster to come with “Hamilton.” The story here, though, has less to do with the country’s origins than the author’s, focusing on a New York neighborhood, Washington Heights, and the strivers and dreamers (including Dreamers, literally) trying to make it there.

Although Miranda has taken only a small role in the film, the lead passes to “Hamilton” co-star Anthony Ramos, who, with his simultaneous stint in HBO’s “In Treatment,” seems poised to come out of this summer an even bigger star than he was heading into it. He plays Usnavi, the story’s narrator, presenting a fable about the neighborhood to a group of smiling children.

The story finds him running the local bodega, trying to make ends meet while pining for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who has her own aspirations to escape and become a fashion designer. The other key couple shares a past, with Nina (Leslie Grace) coming home from Stanford, uncertain about whether she belongs, and Benny (Corey Hawkins) working for Nina’s father (Jimmy Smits), who is so proud of his daughter’s accomplishments he doesn’t hear her concerns.

The neighborhood itself, meanwhile, is changing, threatening its everybody-knows-your-name charm with gentrification. Usnavi is contemplating a break too, heading back to his native Dominican Republic, although the prospect of romance has a way of complicating even the best-laid plans.

The simplicity of the tale belies the intoxicating nature of the music, from lovely ballads to a showstopping Busby Berkeley-style rendition of “96,000” at the local pool and a beautifully choreographed homage to Fred Astaire. Throughout, the movie bursts with energy and color, with shrewd casting choices from top to bottom, perhaps especially with Grace (a singer making her movie debut) and Barrera (who co-starred in the Starz series “Vida”).

As it happens, “In the Heights” kicks off an unusually well-populated lineup of movie musicals this year thanks in part to the logjam created by Covid, with “Annette” (which will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival), “West Side Story,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” all still to come.

Those films remain unseen, but in terms of fulfilling the promise of its material and setting a high bar, audiences will be well served indeed if any of them manage to scale these “Heights.”

“In the Heights” premieres June 11 in theaters and on HBO Max. It’s rated PG-13.

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