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‘In the Heights’ Review: Big Screen Version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Other Broadway Hit Is a Dream Come True

"In the Heights" is so magical and euphoric that it would leave you feeling like the movies were back even if they hadn't gone anywhere.

(Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

“In the Heights”

Macall Polay

IWCriticsPick

So exuberant and full of life that it would probably convince you the movies were back even if they hadn’t gone anywhere, “In the Heights” is the kind of electrifying theatrical experience that people have been waxing nostalgic about ever since the pandemic began — the kind that it almost seemed like we might never get to enjoy again. In that sense, Jon M. Chu’s super-glossy Broadway adaptation hits with equal parts rapture and relief. Seeing this massive, guileless, heartfelt piece of Hollywood entertainment on the big screen is like coming home after a long year in exile only to find that it’s still there, and maybe even better than you remembered.

This is the story of a New York City block that’s on the brink of disappearing, and it naturally carries an extra charge now that its medium is as delicate as its message. Then again, the threat of commercialized self-erasure has been cooked into Miranda’s anti-gentrification lament since he wrote the first drafts of it as an undergrad at Wesleyan.

A full-throated celebration of the diverse Latinx community that’s been the lifeblood of Washington Heights since the white flight of the 1960s, “In the Heights” paved the way for “Hamilton” by transposing hip-hop, salsa, merengue, and other decidedly non-white sounds into a cadence that would appeal to Broadway audiences. The show is steeped in the customs and characters who defined Miranda’s upper-Manhattan neighborhood, but that local flavor has been filtered through the mind of a musical theater nerd whose heart is evenly split between the likes of Big Pun and Jonathan Larson. That isn’t to suggest “In the Heights” was somehow “not Latino enough” for this Jewish critic from 103rd Street or for anyone else, but rather to say that watching it at the Richard Rodgers Theatre could make you wonder if the show was only being staged for the same tourists who get lost on the way to the Cloisters or whatever in the opening number.

That cynicism might naturally be even more pronounced now that Miranda is an overexposed iconoclast whose baseline sincerity invites a certain amount of cringe, and whose personal ode to an under-represented community has been turned into a major summer blockbuster by a non-Latinx filmmaker whose idea of visibility in “Crazy Rich Asians” was making everyone larger than life. That approach isn’t available to Chu here. This may be another story about ridiculously photogenic people, but they exist at street level. They’re bodega clerks and hairdressers. They’re small-business owners who’ve rooted themselves into the hot concrete of Washington Heights so that their children would be free to bloom elsewhere. They’re Cuban-American grandmothers who’ve adopted every stray kid in the neighborhood, and preach a gospel of patience and faith while they wait for a sign from God that they were right to flee La Vibora for the George Washington Bridge — confirmation that will never come. They’re dreamers in every sense of the word, however small those dreams might be.

Chu doesn’t really know how to do small, so he looks for the spectacle inside the stuff of everyday life. As usual, he finds it through movement. This is a portrait about “a people on the move,” and Chu illustrates that idea as literally as possible, not only by channeling it through Christopher Scott’s propulsive choreography but also by physicalizing the inter-generational rhythms of immigrant identity. Even on its static Broadway set — shaken to life every night and twice on Sunday like a snow globe in a heatwave — “In the Heights” was animated by its fevered insistence that home is something people take with them wherever they go. By cracking that snow globe open and watching it spill onto the actual streets of Washington Heights, Chu has created a film that makes you feel like its characters are dreaming with their eyes open.

Here is a musical so magical and assured that even its missteps seem like good ideas. At the very least, Quiara Alegría Hudes — who also wrote the book for the Broadway show — deserves credit for a screenplay that makes bold choices, emphasizes migratory churn even when it means cutting entire characters, and strives to keep up with the times (risky business in a story about how they’re always changing). This “In the Heights” begins with a labored framing device that falls flat even as it helpfully introduces the promise of home as a place that tends to be found somewhere between where you come from and where you hope to go.

Inheriting Miranda’s role with one of the most charismatic and radiantly likeable performances you’ll ever see on a screen of any kind, Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi as a naturalized storyteller with a twinkle in his eye, and we meet him in his element: Sitting on the Dominican beach of his dreams and telling some precocious kids about the special neighborhood that he kept together from behind the register of the bodega that his dad bequeathed to him. This is a lot to handle at the start of a movie where even the best parts demand a certain tolerance for cheesy musical theater tropes, and it grates every time Chu comes back to it.

As anyone who’s familiar with the show might already suspect, things heat up in a hurry as soon as the action heads north to New York and it lights up on Washington Heights (up at the break of day) for 12 minutes of pure cinematic euphoria that almost make up for the 12 months without it. The streets are literally made of music — down to the manhole covers that spin like turntables — as Usnavi heads to work in a sequence that moves with the grace and purpose of someone weaving a community from the thread of a million separate dreams.

Every character who walks through the doors of that bodega is cast to perfection; maybe there “ain’t no Cassiopeia in Washington Heights,” but a new star is born in this movie virtually every other minute. Even the extras seem like they’re about to become famous (especially the piragua guy). After Ramos, top of the list might have to be Melissa Barrera, whose headstrong, ab-forward Vanessa is such a compelling dream girl that it’s hard to believe Usnavi has room for any other sueñitos in his head. He wants to move back to the Dominican Republic, while she only wants to move downtown and join the fashion industry, but the mileage hardly seems to matter for mutual crushes who are heading in opposite directions.

In the Heights

“In the Heights”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Wherever Usnavi winds up, he won’t be there alone. His little cousin Sonny (a funny Gregory Diaz IV, boasting an impressive flow) will follow him wherever he goes. If Usnavi stays put in the Heights, he can always kick it with his best friend Benny, a handsome taxi dispatcher whom the golden-throated Corey Hawkins plays with such charm and backbone that the movie hits a new altitude every time he’s on screen. It’s a performance so buoyant that it takes a second to clock what’s strange about the sequence where Benny dances up the side of an apartment building with his boss’ daughter (Leslie Grace shines as homesick Stanford student Nina Rosario, ambivalent about her role as the girl who got out, while Jimmy Smits is the movie’s tortured soul as the dad who cherishes Washington Heights because it allowed him to send his baby somewhere else). The most ecstatic stretches of “In the Heights” don’t merely suspend disbelief; they change the gravity of the world around you.

We also meet gossipy salon workers Daniela (“Rent” icon Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Carla (“Brooklyn 99” favorite Stephanie Beatriz), most notable for their unapologetic plans of moving to the Bronx; gentrification is a massacre not a war, and these ladies are the loudest sign of the color that’s being squeezed out of Usnavi’s neighborhood. For now, the weak heartbeat of the Heights still belongs to “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising the role she originated on Broadway), whose solo — beginning on a subway car that worms through time from contemporary Manhattan to the Havana of her youth — epitomizes Chu’s emphasis on lives of constant transition.

It’s the most poetically staged number in a movie that prefers to mix the bombast of a Busby Berkeley musical with the wistful fantasy of a daydream, full of “little details that tell the world we are not invisible,” even if these characters are sometimes the only ones who can see them. Almost the entire company comes together for an all-timer of a sequence at the Highbridge Park public pool sequence that splits the difference between those two energies and highlights how people can move when they don’t have to sing live. Some flourishes work better than others — cartoonish illustrations pull focus from the first part of “96,000,” while the massive reams of fabric that drape over the entire neighborhood as Vanessa unspools her dream in “It Won’t Be Long Now” tip from sweet imagination into garish CGI unreality.

Chu hits a lot more often than he misses, and always when it counts most. One early shot finds Usnavi staring out from his bodega while in the reflection on the window in front of him we see dozens of dancers pop and lock together on the street outside; it’s a perfect and unshakeable expression of someone being split between two worlds even as their home fades into the stuff of memory. The songs of “In the Heights” lack the historical staying power that Miranda later brought to “Hamilton” (some of them sound like first drafts for those later hits), but the cast fills them with such an urgent life force that it hardly matters if the Piragua Guy’s song one of the catchiest things here.

Like so many of its characters, the movie has inherited a number of personal choices that it’s powerless to change, and resisting those choices has a way of tightening their grip. Hudes’ clever script rearranges some of the numbers to give the movie a clearer shape than the show ever had, but the energy still flags in a story that naturally does a better job of establishing inner turmoil than it does of resolving it. Despite the nod to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Usnavi’s epiphanies still depend on the kind of whiplash that only works on stage.

Hudes also nixes some of the more charged material in order to emphasize the tenuous promise that America offers to people on the move. For all of its frustrated romance, “In the Heights” has always been more nuanced and honest about the unsettled nature of the immigrant experience than seems possible for a hit Broadway show, and so it’s unfortunate that Hudes’ most overtly political new thread is woven into the old material with a clumsiness that makes some of its most realistic moments ring false. For all of Chu’s gifts, shooting a believable protest scene isn’t one of them.

“In the Heights” is a time capsule at heart — one that’s every bit as focused on “who lives who dies who tells your story” as the next musical that Miranda wrote — and it would rather stumble over a few awkward moments than sweep anything under the rug. Unlike the neighborhood it loves so much, this movie will never change. It will never be a victim of the urban amnesia that forced Chu’s production design team to dress Washington Heights in subtle period drag. Its characters will always be waiting there for you, even the ones who are desperate to leave it behind.

This vivid and revitalizing work of cultural memory couldn’t be more at home in the movie theaters that it’s willing back to life. It leaves you so grateful that someone kept the lights on and preserved the honey-sweet (and slightly embarrassed) vertigo that sweeps over your whole body when you sit in a dark room and surrender to a good musical. All you have to do is see it for yourself. As Usnavi would say: “C’mon! Let’s go!”

Grade: A-

Warner Bros. will release “In the Heights” in theaters on Friday, June 11. It will also be available to stream on HBO Max for 30 days. 

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