Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of Hamilton. And I think it’s important you know that before I dare to offer any thoughts on In the Heights.

Undoubtedly, the circumstances of my first Hamilton viewing — on my home television via Disney+, rather than in a theater watching a live performance — made a difference. Live theater in a packed house is one thing; watching carefully edited footage of a stage on a 32″ screen in your living room while the phone rings and the cat wants to be fed… that’s something else.

But could it also be that my expectations were too high? Perhaps. My first experience of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster Broadway show about the founding fathers took place more than a year after Hamilton hysteria peaked. It was impossible not hear the raves, the cheers, the famous quips ringing in my ears even while the Disney logo sparkled on the screen before the actors appeared onstage.

Whatever the case, I assure you that I was skeptical as I approached it. And, as the end credits rolled, I was conflicted about my experience.

At the risk of looking as bad as Aaron Burr, I hereby confess that I’m not a Hamilton stan.

That’s not Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fault; as a writer and composer, he achieved something undeniably extraordinary with that play, something of lasting cultural significance that has inspired artists and audiences around the world.

No, the problem here is largely personal: Broadway musicals have never really been my thing. Big, boisterous shows like those rarely enchant me. If I feel that a work of art is working hard on my emotions but not my intellect, I distrust it and I back away. And, in my experience, the artists at the controls of big Broadway-style theater productions — especially musicals — seem intent on astonishing an audience, entertaining them by giving them huge portions of things they already love, and thus overwhelming them and forcing them to surrender. If art appeals only to #TheFeels, it can leave an audience convinced, in their delirium, that they’ve experienced greatness when, in fact, they’ve just been overstimulated. What’s more, it can too easily persuade the audience to embrace dangerous ideas.

When I did finally see the Disney+ document of the show’s original run, I was impressed, to some degree, by the performances, the songs, and the relentless genius of the lyrical wordplay. Granted, there’s a lot more food for thought in Hamilton than in most musicals. In the end, though, I was exhausted by the too-muchness of it all.

And that wasn’t all: I was — as I explained in my original review (exclusive to Looking Closer supporters) — disillusioned by how Miranda’s storytelling emphasized the importance of striving for and achieving greatness without really asking the audience to reckon sufficiently with the inevitable “collateral damage” that can come from such passion and single-mindedness. And, since my experience was to watch a “movie” of the play, I was hoping for a more cinematic experience, something through which imagery speaks. And, in this case, it doesn’t.

Even a freeze-frame of In the Heights is likely to convey energy, energy, energy!

So perhaps this explains why I’ve been skeptical of In the Heights since I first saw the trailer.

  • A) It is, first and foremost, a big Broadway stage production.
  • B) It has a reputation of being a big crowd-pleaser.
  • C) It’s obviously flamboyant and supercharged with energy, exploding with big emotions and expecting to evoke big emotions in its audience.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is clearly a once-in-a-generation genius when it comes to putting on an extravagant show that will make an audience cheer repeatedly. And it has seemed inevitable that In the Heights, a winner of multiple Tonys for its Broadway manifestation back in 2008, would become a big-screen sensation. But those three factors were like flashing neon signs: “This is not your kind of thing, Overstreet.” I approached it with some reluctance, braced for another super-sized exhibition of showmanship of the sort that frazzles my nerves and leaves me snarking about “sound and fury that signifies… not much.”

Well… surprise!

I love this movie. And I think you’ll love it too.

I’m as stunned as any reader will be that I am wholeheartedly recommending In the Heights to moviegoers, and that I’m encouraging them to round up their friends and families and get out to a theater to experience it.

Don’t just run to your nearest cinemas — go to the one with the biggest screen and the best sound system. I saw it in a Dolby Cinema presentation, and I was dazzled by the exquisitely textured, radiantly colorful, images; the contagious energy; and the spectacular sound design.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean that I was forced to surrender by another case of too-muchness. I do think it might have been a better film if director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes, adapting Miranda’s stage play, had trimmed ten minutes along the way. But no, when I say that the movie dazzled me, I mean that it served up distinctly cinematic pleasures: wonders that can only happen at the movies. This movie is full of thoughtful and, more importantly, meaningful imagery. Song by song, scene by scene, special effects by special effects, performance by performance, In the Heights won me over and made me care about the community in the spotlight. It’s the most consistently inventive, cinematically satisfying big screen musical I’ve seen since Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge! 

I’m comparing it to Moulin Rouge! for a good reason. What made that movie work as a movie musical was that it was conceived specifically for the screen. It was only bound by the limitations of cameras and animation. If you had told me that In the Heights was imagined first and foremost as a movie instead of a stage play, I might have believed you! This never feels like a stage show adapted for the screen; it’s a thrillingly imagined motion picture.

I’m inclined to say that if you haven’t seen it on the big screen … you haven’t really seen it.

Now, before you decide to make In the Heights your next date movie, a caution: If it’s a compelling love story you’re after, I suspect that neither of the central love stories in this web of Manhattan-focused narratives will scratch your itch, and the combination of the two central love stories only weakens both threads.

The arc of the romance between bodega-owner Usnavi (the charismatic Anthony Ramos) and salon-worker/fashion-designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, apparently auditioning to play Frida Kahlo) is strangely slight. The two suffer an awkwardness between them that seems to exist only to frustrate the audience until the most visually advantageous moment to silhouette a first kiss. (Don’t tell me I’m spoiling things: All of this is evident in the trailers we’ve been watching for a year.)

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera play Usnavi (oos-NAH-vee) and Vanessa, lovers-to-be making things unnecessarily complicated for themselves.

In a scene that almost made me sprain my eyes for rolling them, Usnavi, on a date with Vanessa, pushes her into dancing with other charismatic suitor for… what reason again? I’m reminded of a Schitt’s Creek episode in which David urges Patrick to date someone else just so he can have the reassurance that Patrick will come back to him.

Do real people suffer such ridiculous lapses in judgment? Do they do such things on first dates?

The love story about Stanford dropout Nina (Leslie Grace, who should be fined for exceeding all standards of cuteness) and taxi dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins, suave and charming) is even slighter:

Disillusioned and dehumanized by racism and loneliness, Nina has abandoned her pursuit of a college degree and return to Washington Heights, seemingly content to focus on “inhaling the sweet and unthreatening air” (as The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane so aptly puts it).  Benny is thrilled that she’s back, and they quickly rekindle their interrupted romance. But Nina clashes with her father (Jimmy Smits) about her future and whether or not his investment in her is selfish or not. It all seems too easy, and if we could have felt the stakes of her decision more viscerally — that is, if we were convinced of Nina’s rare intellectual promise which the whole neighborhood seems invested in — this story would take a stronger hold on us.

But this is not enough of a problem to spoil the fun. These individual love stories played for me as secondary; the larger, more compelling story is about a neighborhood in Manhattan called Washington Heights, primarily Latino, and under threat of dissolution. And despite the unstoppable tide of gentrification, they fight for their block and, even more, for their “chosen family” bonds, finding strength and purpose in the love that they show for one another. In celebrations of their diverse cultural foundations (Dominican, Puerto Rican, and more), they remind each other of dignity, strength, and the value of their wild and diverse imaginations.

I found myself far more interested in, and moved by, the film’s supporting characters — particularly Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the humble matriarch of the neighborhood, who bears the greatest burden of the past and the strongest belief in possibility; Sonny (the brilliant Gregory Diaz IV), a young and charismatic undocumented immigrant whose future in a Trumpist America seems unlikely; and Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a salon owner who refuses to let her community collapse under the weight of gentrification without a fight.

While the lovers’ stories are drawn in bold strokes, simplistic and — to use a word my students seem to value above all else — relatable, like pop songs that instantly connect to a massive audience, it is in the quieter, more intimate, more specific exchanges with the secondary characters that the movie takes on greater depth and dimension, a richer sense of lived experience. One of the moments that will be remembered for its delicate truth-telling comes when Claudia shares some of her one-of-a-kind sewing, a pair of gloves once worn by Nina’s mother. Claudia’s needlework becomes a symbol of how people survive harsh circumstances through creativity and art. “We had to assert our dignity in small ways,” Claudia says, “little details that tell the world we are not invisible.” That’s what makes this musical special; if you zoom in, you find a tapestry of “small” moments that resonate with lived experience.

Miranda himself plays one of these characters that, while seemingly “small” in the grand scheme of things, become the secret to the movie’s truthfulness. He pushes a piragua cart around the neighborhood, pouring vivid sugar syrup over shaved ice — small cups full of love and life. (“Think of him,” writes Anthony Lane, “as a warm-weather descendant of Jack, the lamplighter whom Miranda played, with an idling charm, in Mary Poppins Returns (2018).”)

Miranda’s musical celebrate an America that can achieve a harmony of distinct voices, flying many flags at once without asking people to give up their histories or pride.

The ice man’s treats seem so trivial, but they come to seem essential (and appealing to us as moviegoers) in the midst of a heat wave that will have viewers fanning themselves, much the way they did in the furnace of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The heat is an easy but effective metaphor for the relentless pressures — cultural, financial — on Washington Heights. Some critics are pointing to Lee’s film in order to malign Miranda’s musical as too sentimental and sweet. In The L.A. Times, Justin Chang observes, “[U]nlike Spike Lee’s much more trenchant evocation of a humid New York summer, the squeaky-clean In the Heights remains unblighted by bad vibes or bitter conflict….” But he seems to appreciate this movie’s alternate take on trouble:

The problems its multigenerational Latino characters face are undeniably complicated and deeply entrenched: the pressures to advance and assimilate; rising gentrification and diminishing opportunities; the seemingly endless quest for a place that can honestly be called home. But those problems are notably confronted here without violence or rancor — a newly tacked-on scene at a DACA protest as politically barbed as it gets — and they are resolved, as much as they can be, with a winningly amiable spirit.

I think In the Heights would make a remarkable and revealing double-feature with Lee’s 1989 classic, providing an expression of hopefulness that would serve to balance out the grim but truthful troubles that fracture Lee’s New York in so many ways.

In subway tunnels, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is haunted by her troubled past and yet fixed upon the bright lights of her hopes and dreams.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is the way in which Chu finds unique inspirations for almost every musical sequence, delivering one surprise after another:

  • an opening stroll that moves more like a dance in a way that recalls Baby Driver;
  • an emotional subway ride in which flashes of light and shadow trigger flashbacks;
  • guys rigorously rapping as they swagger through town, their gestures enhanced with chalky animation;
  • a tremendous swimming pool sequence involving a host of dancers and synchronized swimmers, set to a song about lottery-ticket dreams; and
  • another intimate dance between two lovers near the end of the film that defies gravity in ways I won’t spoil for you.

Every time I began to feel a hint of Sensation Fatigue, Chu would spring a new surprise that did more than jolt the audience; it seemed meaningful.

Alissa Wilkinson (Vox) describes Washington Heights as being more than just a context: “What cinema affords so readily to its storytellers is the ability to visually build a full, richly layered world in a way you really can’t do onstage. [Chu] leans into the possibilities. Now, Washington Heights is a character, not just a few buildings. Its residents are singing and dancing on the street corners, in the alleys, in living rooms, in salsa clubs. The film is an intoxicating capture of both a culture and a city.” (You can read Wilkinson’s interviews with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes, and Jon M. Chu here.)

The dreams of a community erupt in a boisterous Busby Berkeley-style swimming pool number the likes of which I haven’t seen since… The Great Muppet Caper?

As an affirmation of — indeed, a defiant embrace of — Latino immigrants’ histories of endurance, of hope, and of imaginative flourishing in the midst of hardship, it reminds us of what America can make possible for people from lands troubled by violence and poverty. (Man, this movie made me so jealous of people who have a cultural heritage they take pride in. As a white American who grew up in a primarily Republican community where I was subtly conditioned to accept system racism, I can’t imagine what that’s like.)

Ultimately, In the Heights plays for me as a celebration of America’s as-yet-unfulfilled vision: the ideal of a country where rivers of humanity merge without losing their distinction, where everyone can make their home in harmony without giving up what is best about their cultural DNA, and without suffering condemnation or marginalization.

When the Washington Heights community comes together to honor one of their own, raising up torches in salute, we see a host of living statues of liberty, an overwhelming affirmation of that bold symbol. Living through a time when American Republicans are abandoning the ideal of “liberty and justice for all” in favor of cruelty and white supremacy, I cannot help but be moved by such an image.

This passionate affirmation of the true American ideal, it happens to correspond beautifully with Christ’s call to the whole world: Love your neighbor as yourself. Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, engraved upon the Statue of Liberty, make plain what I was taught to believe about America: We say to the world, “Give [us] your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….” Until recently, I genuinely believed that this was what the American people valued; today, I stand dismayed to observe how half the nation has seemed willing — even eager — to scrap this radical vision in the name of fear, hatred, exclusion, and self-interest.

“A thousand points of light”? In Washington Heights, everyone who believes in the dream is carrying the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

But, like Usnavi and his community, I am not willing to give up such a dream.

Even if the United States’ vision has been doomed by traitors to its people and its Constitution, by vandals and criminals in Congress, by Antichrists in the churches who advance the cause of so-called “Christian nationalism,” the vision of a True America will remain something more powerful than a nation with borders: it will live on as a restless and inclusive spirit ever searching for a new occasion, a new home.

In the Heights suggests that cinema itself can be one of those places where that spirit is alive and well and boisterous and loud, despite the efforts of villains and fools to silence it. Here, we’re invited to enjoy a beautiful day in the neighborhood, one forged by imagination, hospitality, and love.

It may well win a whole community of Oscars — and I suspect it will take home the big one.

If it does, I won’t complain. The Oscars are (typically, anyway) a popularity contest, and In the Heights is riding an advantage that it could never have seen  coming: It has become, accidentally, the occasion that brings people back to the theaters after America’s long national nightmare, the pandemic in which a dreamer-hating, immigrant-slandering American President amplified American casualties by hundreds of thousands with his vanity and neglect. How right it seems, then, that the occasion of the Grand Reopening should be celebrated with a whole-hearted and defiant rejection of Trumpist Republicans’ inhumane agendas.

Usnavi looks “through a glass darkly” at the neighborhood that he, against all odds, believes in.

Without leaning too hard into political sloganeering, In the Heights is an affirmation that, in the grand scheme of things, true joy belongs to the people who open their arms and open their hearts. Traitors to the American way can take away property, scatter a neighborhood, and build walls that oppress and divide. But they cannot kill this multi-culutral vision, which will ultimately find its fulfillment in God’s time, God’s promise of justice, God’s grace and reconciliation. Evil spirits can break up the block of Washington Heights. Evil spirits cannot erase the beauty of human beings as fully alive as these, nor can oppressors crush the distinctly American spirit flourishing here through the imaginative power of art.

As America’s greatest songwriter once sang to his own oppressors, “There is something happening here / And you don’t know what it is, do you?”