Romance permeates Jon M. Chu’s big screen adaptation of In the Heights, like the aroma of charcoal on a summer day. Perhaps this should be obvious since the central conflict of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical remains its two star-crossed couples working things out at the northern, tip-top peak of Manhattan. Yet that’s not where the movie’s true passion lies; like the source material before it, the In the Heights film’s real ardor is for the neighborhood of Washington Heights itself. How else could a picture so endear you to what is otherwise a cup of bodega coffee?
As a jubilant and kaleidoscopic love letter to the handful of city blocks which run adjacent to the George Washington Bridge, In the Heights bursts with a life and creativity that is often blinding, and always intoxicating. It lives in a postcard Neverland version of the usually overlooked and marginalized sides of New York City, yet that does not make it fanciful. Rather this is a movie head over heels in love with its street corners above 181st Street, and the largely Latinx community which lives there. And if you go into it with an open mind, you’ll fall, too.
Ostensibly the story of Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) and his quest to leave New York City behind in favor of his parents’ Dominican homeland, In the Heights opens after he’s already achieved his dream. He’s older now and recounting to his daughter on a Caribbean beach his memories of a community that is obviously still his real home. For back in the day, he was the young guy who owned the corner’s favorite bodega, and he knew everyone on the block.
There’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), Usnavi’s bestie and an ambitious dispatch caller at the local taxi cab service; Kevin (Jimmy Smits), the overachieving first generation immigrant who owns said taxi service; and Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s teenage cousin who helps out at the store. But perhaps most importantly there’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the aspiring fashion designer who also has plans of getting out of the hood—if only to West 4th Street—and who’s the apple of Usnavi’s eye.
Theirs is just one of the mildly complex romances at the heart of a film, which also focuses on the return of Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter who is home for the summer after her first year at Stanford. She is the golden child to both her father and all of Washington Heights—one of the “good ones” who made it out. It makes telling them all she dropped out that much harder, including Benny. Because, like Usnavi and Vanessa, theirs is an entire history of everything being left unsaid. Each couple, and all the familiar faces in their lives, is about to have a whirlwind summer filled with music, heartbreak, a rolling blackout, and just maybe a winning lottery ticket.
As with many stage-to-screen transfers, Chu’s adaptation of In the Heights struggles at times with its new format. The Broadway’s musical’s creators, Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame and Quiara Alegría Hudes, the latter of whom wrote the book for the show and has here penned the screenplay, are intimately involved in the film. And they’ve made a series of smart, savvy concessions to their new medium. Some songs have been moved around, others have been excised completely, and the wrap-around story with modern day Usnavi in his dream beach bar on a Dominican shoreline attempts to add more narrative structure for a film which is, at heart, a series of musical vignettes.
Still, In the Heights cannot wholly avoid the most familiar obstacles which have tripped up other Hollywood adaptations: the need to maintain as much of the musical material as possible from the show gives the film an occasionally shaggy quality as it meanders its way around every major set piece in its 143-minute running time, and ultimately overstays its welcome with maybe one too many toe-tappers.
With that said, it would take a real curmudgeon to focus on the minor narrative stumbles when there is so much exuberance emanating from Chu’s production and the kinetic ensemble. With its fusion of freestyle rap, salsa rhythms, and other blended Caribbean musical styles, this film erupts with an irresistible vitality every time its ensemble hits the asphalt.
Chu, who before Crazy Rich Asians cut his teeth by directing the best Step Up films, brings a familiar eye for propulsive choreography and joyful movement that made the dance sequences in those films into spectacles greater than most modern action movies. In the Heights is similarly ready to try on almost any creative hat for at least one musical number, such as when Usnavi, Benny, and Sonny break the fourth wall to sketch on the screen their wistful daydreams of what they’d do with a winning lottery ticket, or in the way Vanessa’s song about getting out leaves her entire block covered in the fabric she thinks will carry her off on a downtown train.
In lesser hands, these flourishes could fall into music video glibness, but they’re balanced by an entirely authentic ensemble and a beating heart beneath the razzle dazzle. Ramos particularly seems to be a talent on the make, trading in John Laurens’ blue coat and starched collar from Hamilton for a more laid back and movie star-ready affability. His Usnavi is charmingly big-hearted yet hints at deep waters beneath his calm surface. And, with all respect to Mr. Miranda, Ramos can sing “It Won’t Be Long Now” in a much fuller range.
Barrera’s Vanessa and Grace’s Nina also both have showstopping ballads that are sure to amass each an influx of fans. However, the solo number that lingers best belongs to Olga Merediz, whose Abuela Claudia is the surrogate grandmother to both Usnavi and the neighborhood. On paper, the part could easily be reduced to an archetype, but Merediz’s one major scene where she sings only to herself about a lifetime’s worth of regrets and slights after immigrating to the U.S. from Cuba 70 years ago elevates the films and adds texture to the Latino-American experience that In the Heights so celebrates.
More than its romantic will-they-or-won’t-they rendezvouses, it is the movie’s affection for the ties which bind first, second, and third generation Americans that becomes the picture’s real emotional resonance. The film version of In the Heights also updates that pride and anxiety with a new subplot involving Dreamers—undocumented young people who grew up and lived their entire lives in America—and the dread of being deported from the only home they’ve ever known.
Of course with a gushing heart on its sleeve, In the Heights is still a fairy tale in search of magic, not sorrow. Instead of ice castles or ancient kingdoms, however, its alchemy resides in salons with broken air conditioners and the sugar flavored ice shavings found in a Piragua guy’s cart (which, by the by, provides Miranda with a movie-stealing cameo). I’m not sure if it has the same complexity of music and narrative that propelled Miranda’s Hamilton into a phenomenon twice over, including last year’s Disney+ streaming event. But it won’t really matter to the countless new fans who will surely watch In the Heights on repeat—and hopefully on the biggest screen they can find.
In the Heights opens in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, June 11.