The film’s mix of musical styles and Latino characters gives voice (and dance) to a community too rarely celebrated in major-studio movies
In Broadway history, there have been only a handful of musicals that center on U.S. Latinos, and only a fraction of those shows were written by people from the communities they were portraying on stage. That’s part of the reason why Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” made waves when it opened on Broadway back in 2008 (after a successful Off Broadway run). More than a decade later, and after a slight pandemic delay, Jon M. Chu’s cinematic adaptation of Miranda’s first musical promises to make an even bigger splash with its celebration of family, love, and the idea of home.
The main voice of “In the Heights” belongs to Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, “Hamilton”), who is on a beach telling a group of kids about his memories of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. He introduces Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who’s not really his abuela but assumed a grandmotherly role in his life anyway, and a younger cousin named Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, “Vampires vs. the Bronx”), who helps Usnavi at the bodega he inherited from his dad.
Across the street, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) operates his car service in the face of encroaching gentrification while struggling to pay the pricey tuition for daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who’s off at Stanford. Nina’s back in town for the summer, afraid to let her father down after dropping out. Summer love is also in season as Kevin’s top dispatcher, Benny (Corey Hawkins, “Straight Outta Compton”), is interested in Nina, while Usnavi nurses a crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an ambitious go-getter with dreams of moving downtown to become a fashion designer. Even the aestheticians (Dascha Polanco, Stephanie Beatriz, and Daphne Rubin-Vega) from the block’s beauty salon have a role to play in this busy ecosystem. It’s a snapshot of a place on the cusp of changing forever.
Original “In the Heights” book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes returns to write the screenplay, altering a few plot details and the order of the songs from the stage version. Chu’s sharp direction breaks out of the limitations of a theatrical space, expanding the film’s scope to capture a sense of the busy, bustling life in this neighborhood. His vision expands and enriches the show’s rendering of Washington Heights into a moving spectacle, elevating mundane mornings or trips to the pool into something mesmerizing and exhilarating.
Reteaming with his “Jem and the Holograms” cinematographer Alice Brooks, Chu gives the Heights its own identity, a rich palette of vivid colors one might find in a spray-painted mural. Like Spike Lee’s use of red in “Do the Right Thing,” Chu’s palette channels the searing essence of New York in the summer, where every underground subway stop feels like an oven door and not even nighttime gives you a break from the hot, humid air.
No matter the challenges facing the characters, the music and dancing keeps going. Miranda’s soundtrack mixes various sounds from hip-hop, rap and Broadway-style ballads, and even bolero and flamenco make appearances alongside a lot of salsa and some merengue thrown in as interstitial music. The dancing also reflects those varying styles, putting ballet side by side with salsa and hip-hop. Chu, who broke out as a director with “Step Up 2: The Streets” and “Step Up 3D,” brings that balance of kinetic camerawork without sacrificing Christopher Scott’s choreography in numbers like the Busby Berkeley–inspired scene at a public pool or Benny and Nina’s dance on the side of her apartment building that calls to mind Fred Astaire tapping across the ceiling in “Royal Wedding.”
Perhaps the most entrancing dance number is the contemporary ballet during the song “Paciencia y Fe,” which follows Abuela Claudia back to the memories of her mother leaving La Víbora in Havana, Cuba, for New York. She moves past trains and past dancers whose costumes change from the white peasant blouses, skirts, guayaberas and straw hats of Cuba to the city’s fashion of the ’40s — suspenders and small hats, pressed shirts and stiffer dresses. Shot in what looks like the old trains and platforms of the New York Transit Museum, the musical shifts in tone during “Paciencia y Fe,” taking the audience back in time to revisit painful memories of her struggle to survive in America and the peace of finally feeling at home again.
The singing and dancing is always on point, but so is the acting. As Usnavi, Ramos is wonderfully charming as both the teller of the story and its main character. He can play goofy and insecure, frustrated and elated, guiding Usnavi’s emotional journey with confidence. Vanessa’s upbeat salsa anthem, “It Won’t Be Long Now,” is perhaps one of the more underrated sequences: It’s an impressive showcase for Barrera’s talents, giving her a wide range of emotions to move through in one number and one of the few moments in the musical to belt out. Merediz reprises the role she originated Off Broadway, and her reworked version of “Paciencia y Fe” becomes one of the most moving numbers in the film. (Sharp-eyed fans of the musical may recognize the Mister Softee vendor as Chris Jackson, who originated the role of Benny onstage, or spot Miranda’s parents as part of Nina’s welcoming committee when she returns home.)
Because this is such an ensemble narrative, the characters can introduce nuanced conversations about the immigrant experience. In one number, Nina fantasizes about what her life would have been had her parents never left Puerto Rico. Would she feel more at home? Would her Spanish sound better? For Usnavi, his dream is to go back to the Dominican Republic to revive his dad’s dream, a beach-side bar, rather than run a sweltering city bodega. There’s a kind of romanticism, what Sonny teases as a kind of “island fever,” for these first- and second-generation kids who don’t feel at home in this country. They will likely always wonder about greener tropical pastures until they find peace with the idea of finding or making a home in the States or, like Usnavi, plan that one-way ticket back.
Another part of what makes the adaptation of “In the Heights” so remarkable is that it is a major Hollywood musical that allows its Latino characters to live normal lives, outside of gang or narco violence and outside of stereotypes. How rarely do we see ourselves just hold down a job and nurture our ambitions; in most movies, do we even have enough lines of dialogue to have ambitions?
“In the Heights” also includes little details of our everyday life that feel significant. That’s evident in the bodega, where Vaporub, Cafe Bustelo and even Presidente beer make appearances. The adoring close-ups of food like oven-roast pork, pasteles, and flan aren’t just there to make us hungry; they are acknowledgment. Everyday phrases like “Que Dios te bendiga” and even “fuácata” are thrown in without translation. You don’t need to know what these mean, but if you know, you know.
Quite possibly the most moving image since the first trailer dropped back at the end of 2019 is the “Carnaval del Barrio” number, which hoists our Latin American flags, waving them proudly and even shouting out a few of the most prominent countries represented in the Heights by name. It’s an incredibly moving gesture for a group that’s so often marked by our absence on the big screen. To paraphrase Abuela Claudia, these “little details that tell the world we are not invisible” do mean something to us.
With “In the Heights,” Chu delivers the Latino equivalent of his previous box office smash “Crazy Rich Asians” and knocks it out of the park. It’s a layered story but a feel-good one that will invite many rewatches. Like “Crazy Rich Asians,” not everyone is going to feel represented when they watch “In the Heights.” That’s an impossible task for any movie. Yet “In the Heights” can represent many things for many different viewers. It can be a story about ambitious, hard-working people chasing their dreams. It can be a reflection on the immigrant experience and the struggle to find where you belong. It can also be a tribute to our parents’ sacrifices.
Just as importantly, there’s an unmistakable sense of pride in celebrating where so many of us came from and an optimistic outlook towards where we’re all going next, and it feels like we could all use a little bit of that these days.
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