Created by Lin Manuel Miranda before he wrote the juggernaut “Hamilton,” the musical is a sprawling, heartfelt celebration of culture and community. The film version, which premieres in theaters and on HBO Max this week, offers some powerful insights into the immigrant experience mixed with fantastic music and dance. You might shed a tear or two, but your toes will definitely be ticking.
Slightly adapted from the stage version, the show focuses on the largely Dominican residents of a particular Washington Heights neighborhood. They all have dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic to changing the world here in the US, and they all face barriers to those dreams, including poverty, racism, and immigration status. In the midst of it all, they fall in love, become jealous, support their families, and figure out how to hold on to the things that matter most, no matter what gets in the way.
Director John M. Chu, best known for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, brings it all with the same wonderful blend of cultural specificity and universal emotions. These characters deal with everything from seeing their dreams shut down by their illegal status to being mistaken for the wait staff at an official college event, and even if we’ve never felt anything like it, the movie helps the characters’ pain. to bring home. They also grapple with questions we’ve all felt at one time or another, such as whether it’s worth taking the weight of your parents’ dreams and how to prioritize ambition versus daily joy.
It’s also a lot of fun. The music and dancing are fantastic, and while the songs aren’t as iconic as “Hamilton”, they’re catchier in some ways. They’re all clearly designed for dancing too, and if you’re watching this at home, feel free to get up and join the dance numbers. You probably don’t look nearly as graceful as the people on screen, but anyone who could betray you will be too busy dancing.
Between the dances you will be swept up in the acting. The entire cast is really good, from Leslie Grace’s fallen shining star to Melissa Barerra’s battle between despair and burning drive. Corey Hawkins is subtle yet powerful, and Jimmy Smits captures his entire life in a handful of scenes. Olga Meridez, who plays Abuela Claudia and is the only remnant from the stage version, is the film’s matriarch as much as the neighborhood. She is a grounding force, every moment she is full of warmth and nuance on the screen.
However, the real star of the film is Anthony Ramos. As Usnavi, he’s a magnetic force, charming in lighter moments and just a little heartbreaking in more serious scenes. You understand why the street cares about him so much because it won’t be long before you care about him too.
By the end of the movie, you’ll fall in love with the whole neighborhood at least a little bit.