The title song that opens In the Heights starts quietly with a tentative percussion beat as Anthony Ramos, in a star-making turn as narrator-protagonist Usnavi, eases into the intro’s freestyle rapping while the camera lovingly salutes the slice of Upper Manhattan that provides the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical with its pounding heart. Principal characters and their various domains within the close-knit Latino community are introduced on a warm summer’s day, crawling out of bed, spilling out of their brownstone apartment buildings, hopping on buses and heading to work.
A full ten minutes of this engaging scene-setting unfolds before the frame erupts into an ebullient production number with dancers of all ages, shapes and sizes fanning out all over an entire city block. It’s sheer joy to watch New York shake off its slumber, like an invigorating shower from an open fire hydrant. That alone should make this real-world musical fairy tale a summer crowd-pleaser.
In the Heights
An effervescent summertime tonic.
Even if Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu brings more life to those explosive numbers than to the soapy connective tissue that threads them together, the jubilant spirit of Warners’ big-screen adaptation — held back for a year by the pandemic — is contagious. This is a stirring valentine to a neighborhood and its people that, as the film tells it, stared gentrification in the eye and stood their ground, staying true to their cultural identity. Both the George Washington Bridge and the 168th Street subway station loom large as symbols of escape to the world beyond the barrio. But this is a paean to home — as a cocoon, a state of mind and a legacy for first-generation immigrants.
Miranda wrote the first draft of the show while he was at Wesleyan in the late ‘90s and went on to develop it with director Thomas Kail and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes. It had a successful off-Broadway debut in 2007, transferring to Broadway the following year and winning four Tony Awards, including best musical and best original score for Miranda.
In that stage production, Miranda played Usnavi, a Washington Heights bodega owner named for the U.S. Navy ship first sighted by his Dominican parents on arrival in America. In the screen version, Miranda ages up into the happily hammy role of the Piragüero, who pushes his cart through the neighborhood selling fruit-flavored shaved-ice desserts. In a pleasing nod to the show’s history, the local driver for his corporatized competition, Mister Softee, is played by Christopher Jackson, an original alumnus of both In the Heights and Miranda’s subsequent monster hit, Hamilton.
The roots of that global blockbuster are readily apparent in this less sophisticated earlier work, in its themes of self-determination and the immigrant contribution, as well as some of its musical motifs. The melodies assigned to the principal women of In the Heights, in particular, often sound like test drives for the Schuyler Sisters’ catchier songs.
But if the material shows Miranda’s formidable creative talents at a more nascent stage, it nonetheless remains clear why the show was a breath of fresh air on predominantly white Broadway, where it ran for almost three years. Just the celebratory representation of striving working-class Latino characters — with one foot in cultural tradition and the other seeking traction in the American Dream — alone was refreshing. Likewise, the musical vernacular, a buoyant blend of Latin American pop, hip-hop, jazz, salsa and merengue with traditional Broadway show tunes. Those same qualities make the film a representational breakthrough for mainstream Hollywood.
The weaknesses of the show were chiefly in its sentimental book, more of a vignette-driven mosaic than a satisfyingly shaped narrative. Hudes hasn’t quite conquered the structural limitations in her adaptation, and Chu perhaps overcompensates by investing heavily in the frequent “fiesta” peaks. Still, a slight imbalance in pacing and energy doesn’t diminish the pleasures of this fizzy entertainment, especially when Ramos is center-screen plying his megawatt charm.
The primary plotline involves Usnavi’s ambition to sell up and buy the beach refreshment kiosk once owned by his father back in the Dominican Republic, the setting of a childhood vacation that still provides his happiest memories. That plan entails some regret, since it means abandoning any chance that his longtime infatuation with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) will develop into love, even less so since she’s itching to trade the Heights for downtown to break into the fashion industry.
Usnavi was raised since his parents’ early death by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her Tony-nominated Broadway role), the Cuban surrogate grandmother to pretty much the entire community, whom he plans to take with him. He also hopes to coax his smart-mouthed teenage cousin and bodega helper Sonny (scene-stealing livewire Gregory Diaz IV) into joining them. Sonny’s home life with his boozing dad (Marc Anthony) doesn’t provide much incentive to stay, but the cocky kid feels his place is in America, even if his undocumented status poses challenges.
One of Hudes’ most significant updates to the material is the acknowledgment of conservative government moves to overturn DACA, introducing an immigrant rights protest at a climactic point and refashioning the conclusion to centralize Sonny’s future plans. Elsewhere, the screenplay smooths over some of the show’s conflicts, including an outbreak of looting during a city-wide power blackout, and parental objections to the story’s secondary romance due to differences in racial background.
That union is between Benny (Corey Hawkins), the Black dispatch worker at cab service Rosario’s, and Nina (Leslie Grace), whose widowed father Kevin (Jimmy Smits, ageless) owns the struggling business. Nina has dropped out of Stanford at the end of freshman year, feeling like an outsider in that atmosphere of wealth and privilege but using the financial burden as her justification. The weight of community expectations on her shoulders as the one destined to make her mark in the world is nicely expressed in the song “Breathe.” Kevin’s self-reproach over being unable to fund his daughter’s education opportunities causes him to consider drastic measures after already selling off half his storefront.
The discovery that a winning $96,000 lottery ticket was purchased at Usnavi’s store prompts another of Chu’s (literally) splashy set-pieces. That one, with Busby Berkeley-style water ballet elements, steers the entire ensemble to Highbridge Pool for a production number in which all the principals sing of how they’d spend the cash. (So You Think You Can Dance vet Christopher Scott did the exuberant choreography.) But the owner of the winning ticket is withheld until the end of the movie in a disclosure that few won’t see coming.
There’s an amusing gossip grapevine fed by Vanessa’s boss at the local hairdressing salon, Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), in ‘No Me Diga,’ flanked by Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco). However, Daniela is also feeling the squeeze of gentrification; buckling under rent increases, she opts to move her salon to the Bronx. But she still summons the pluck to lead a rallying cry in “Carnaval del Barrio,” three days into the power outage when the temperature has soared to 106. It’s fun to see original Rent star Rubin-Vega shimmying back into the spotlight, even if that’s arguably one upbeat party number too many.
Among the movie’s welcome moments of relative calm, the loveliest is Benny and Nina’s duet, “When the Sun Goes Down,” which has them magically dancing up and down apartment block walls and around fire escapes in one of Chu’s more enchanting flourishes. Both performers are appealing, but Hawkins is the revelation, with the sweetest of singing voices and graceful ease in his dance moves. Another highlight comes from Abuela Claudia, the warm soul of the movie in Merediz’s big-hearted performance. Her solo, “Paciencia y Fé (Patience and Faith),” shares her credo while conjuring the Havana of her youth in the New York subway.
Hudes frames the story with some heavy-handed misdirection relating to Usnavi’s ultimate choice, but Ramos — a discovery of the original Hamilton cast — overcomes the script’s flaws with a magnetic performance bursting with personality. He sweeps the audience along even when the action ambles, losing the focus among too many characters.
Vanessa, on the other hand, feels shortchanged, her dream fading in and out. Aside from seeing her salvage textile remnants from a dumpster, we get little evidence of her passion for design until an underwhelming off-the-rack reveal at the end. The conflict in her hesitant romance with Usnavi feels a tad forced, but the actors nonetheless make a winning couple.
It’s a cute joke having a song from Hamilton as the hold music on a phone call at one point, even if it might be a questionable choice to draw attention to a show whose artistry is far superior to this one. But it’s futile to resist the generosity of spirit that powers In the Heights, which extends its adoration to entertainment trailblazers in colorful murals of Latina icons requiring first names only — Chita, Rita, Celia.
The movie glows with an abundance of love for its characters, their milieu and the pride with which they defend their cultural footprint against the encroaching forces of New York development that continually shove the marginalized further into the margins. The resilience with which the characters claim their place in the fabric of city life is exhilarating.