Before Hamilton was even a twinkle in his eye, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote In the Heights, a joyful, exuberant homage to the Washington Heights, N.Y., barrio in which he grew up. I saw the Broadway tour of In the Heights about 10 years ago and was swept away by the big-hearted dreamers trying to straddle the places they came from—the Dominican Republic (DR), Puerto Rico, etc.—and their new homes. As every immigrant knows, it often takes years and even generations for the shoe to fit well.
Usnavi (an effervescent Anthony Ramos), named after a U.S. Navy ship spotted by his father, owns a bodega but yearns to return to buy back his father’s beach kiosk in the DR. The girl he loves wants to be a fashion designer but doesn’t have the contacts, educational opportunities, or credit history to make it happen. Other characters pine for dreams to come true in the face of gentrification, laws that threaten their immigration status, and other big obstacles. But Abuela Claudia, an adopted grandma to Usnavi, counsels patience and faith and always centering oneself in the bonds of home, family, and community.
Ebullient and delightful, In the Heights is just the reminder we need that summer is coming again. Fans of Hamilton will love this, and even non-fans might like it. What’s not to like about a dreamer who sings and dances his way through every trial? (PG-13, Hulu, HBO Max, and others)
Andrew Garfield (my second favorite Spiderman, after Tobey Maguire) should be nominated for an Oscar for his completely wired, deeply poignant turn as Rent creator Jonathan Larson. Regardless of what your thoughts are on Rent, Tick, Tick … Boom is one of the most inspiring and riveting portrayals ever of an artist’s consuming passion to bring his art to life.
Garfield is electrifying as Larson, who, at 30, is still wrestling with a musical he has been crafting relentlessly for eight years. He is on the cusp of finally staging a workshop production of it, which is exciting and scary all at once. He has no money and lives in a cold apartment where the power gets shut off at a pivotal moment in his creative process. His girlfriend seems to have one foot out the door, and his best friend and roommate is finally coming to terms with the fact that he needs a reliable day job and can’t live this starving artist’s life anymore. The pressure is on, and the clock is ticking—tick, tick…boom? When will his dreams explode in a good way—or a bad way?
Adding to the pressure is the viewer’s knowledge that Larson died at the age of 35, right before Rent was about to make its Off-Broadway debut. Lin-Manuel Miranda directs this as a loving homage; he, more than almost anyone short of Noah, can understand what it is like to labor for years over a creative project everyone thinks is nuts. Miranda is seen by some as Larson’s heir, which makes this project even more touching. The music, written by Larson, is invigorating and hummable, in the vein of “Seasons of Love” from Rent. I found myself singing snippets all through the week and wondering how to get my hands on the soundtrack.
The most affecting scene to me was when the great Broadway creator Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford) encouraged Larson at a crucial moment, much like Sondheim himself was encouraged by Oscar Hammerstein once upon a time.
Larson’s story is set amid the AIDS epidemic of the 1990s (which figures heavily into Rent but not this movie). It’s compelling to learn a bit about this era as we navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. God doesn’t figure in this story, but with themes of creating something, loving one’s friends and neighbors, and having compassion for those who are suffering, it points to him anyway. (PG-13, Netflix)
I relish the magical realism that infuses so much great Latin American writing, such as novels by Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Encanto, the latest offering from Disney Animation Studios, is inspired by Marquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude with its story of a family enchanted—encanto—with magical abilities living in a magical house.
Mirabel Madrigal (voiced by Brooklyn 911’s wry Stephanie Beatriz) is the heroine here, a smart middle child who doesn’t have a single superpower, unlike her Samson-like sister, who can lift anything, and another sister who is perfect in every way and can make flowers bloom around her. Mirabel is the anti-Disney princess, an ordinary girl with glasses who doesn’t need a prince to wake her up to her shifting surroundings. The magic in her family is cracking, somehow, and it seems to be connected to her exiled Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), living apart from his family because they didn’t like his particular ability: seeing things in the future that might not match up to the family’s enchanted present.
Mirabel and Uncle Bruno are relatable to anyone who feels like they can’t measure up to their family’s expectations of them. Even the sisters are cracking under the pressure of always having to be strong and perfect. It’s gratifying to watch this family come to terms with who they really are as love and grace win the day. With catchy tunes by Lin-Manuel Miranda (especially “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”), this brightly colored gem shines. (PG, Disney Plus)
About the Author
Lorilee Craker, a native of Winnipeg, Man., lives in Grand Rapids, Mich. The author of 15 books, she is the Mixed Media editor of The Banner. Find her on Instagram @thebooksellersdaughter or on her podcast Eat Like a Heroine.