Review: ‘In the Heights’ brings the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical vividly to life
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In a quietly moving interlude from “In the Heights,” Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the beloved matriarch of a Washington Heights barrio, has a heart-to-heart with one of her many surrogate grandchildren. Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), back home after a rough freshman year at Stanford, describes her sense of loneliness and alienation at a campus devoid of her usual community — something Claudia, who immigrated to New York from Cuba in 1943, knows a thing or two about. Reminiscing about the beautiful gloves Nina’s late mother used to wear, concealing hands that were cracked from hours spent cleaning other people’s homes, Claudia says, “We had to assert our dignity in small ways … little details that tell the world we are not invisible.”
“In the Heights,” Jon M. Chu’s jubilant new screen adaptation of the Tony-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, partakes of Claudia’s hard-earned wisdom and offers itself to the audience in the same hopeful, self-affirming spirit. But it doesn’t stop there. To call this movie assertive would be an understatement; to describe it as small would be a lie. At nearly two-and-a-half hours and with a terrific ensemble of actors singing, rapping, dancing and practically bursting out of the frame, “In the Heights” is a brash and invigorating entertainment, a movie of tender, delicate moments that nonetheless revels unabashedly in its own size and scale.
That scale generally works to the movie’s advantage, though not always. As a collection of interwoven stories set to the pulsing rhythms of everyday barrio life, this “In the Heights” can feel as dramatically thin and overstretched as its source material admittedly was. (The screenwriter, Quiara Alegría Hudes, also wrote the show’s original book.) But as a musical valentine to a close-knit Latino community, an inspired swirl of hip-hop, Latin pop, salsa and other musical idioms, its pleasures are often glorious, even transporting. It summons — and for the most part sustains — the kind of visual and musical energy that might help give the movies the resurgent jab-in-the-arm summer they’ve been waiting for.
Summer is the operative word. Set during a record-breaking New York heat wave that builds to a fateful Fourth of July blackout, “In the Heights” is, first and foremost, a picture to restore your gratitude for an air-conditioned multiplex. (After showing June 4 at the L.A. Latino International Film Festival and June 9 at the Tribeca Film Festival, the movie will be made available June 11 in theaters and on HBO Max.) When I saw the touring production at the Pantages 11 years ago, the sky-high temperatures were evoked mainly through stagecraft, through warm lighting, summertime apparel and the odd sweltering lyric: “It’s gotten too darn hot,” raps Usnavi as he stacks goods in the corner bodega that keeps this Upper Manhattan neighborhood fed, informed and caffeinated.
The movie, whatever it loses in the translation to the screen, has some obvious atmospheric advantages. The camera (wielded by the cinematographer Alice Brooks) can stroll past the bodega aisles, scan the wares on display and clock every customer who drops in for a cafe con leché or a lottery ticket. It can dive beneath crisscrossing streams of water from renegade fire hydrants, showering a grateful crowd in one of several hat-tips to “Do the Right Thing.” But unlike Spike Lee’s much more trenchant evocation of a humid New York summer, the squeaky-clean “In the Heights” remains unblighted by bad vibes or bitter conflict, some romantic confusion and quickly resolved parent-child angst notwithstanding.
The problems its multigenerational Latino characters face are undeniably complicated and deeply entrenched: the pressures to advance and assimilate; rising gentrification and diminishing opportunities; the seemingly endless quest for a place that can honestly be called home. But those problems are notably confronted here without violence or rancor — a newly tacked-on scene at a DACA protest as politically barbed as it gets — and they are resolved, as much as they can be, with a winningly amiable spirit.
If Abuela Claudia is the wisest embodiment of that spirit, Usnavi is its most prominent face. He’s brought to life with an irreducible mix of pride, enthusiasm, weariness and determination by the terrific actor Anthony Ramos, who previously played the role onstage and also appeared in both stage and screen versions of that exponentially bigger Lin-Manuel Miranda phenomenon, “Hamilton.” (Miranda, who originated the part of Usnavi in the Off Broadway production of “In the Heights,” has a small good-luck-charm role here as a roving piragua seller.)
Usnavi — whose unusual name is a funny, touching byproduct of his late father’s immigrant pride — relishes his role as a pillar of the community and a mentor to Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his good-hearted teenage cousin and employee. But Usnavi also longs to return to his childhood home in the Dominican Republic and revive the family business — one of many sueñitos, or little dreams, that his friends and neighbors similarly struggle to keep alive. “In the heights / I flip the lights and start my day / There are fights / Endless debts / And bills to pay,” they sing in a sensational opening number that cuts rapidly between crowded apartments and stairwells before finally descending on a splendidly orchestrated street ballet. (The production designer is Nelson Coates; the choreographer is Christopher Scott.)
That number also introduces other major characters like Vanessa (a superb Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who’s eyeing an apartment downtown. (She’s also eyeing a relationship with Usnavi, if he would only listen to his buddies and work up the nerve to ask her out.) Even more on the move is Vanessa’s boss, Daniela (the irrepressible Daphne Rubin-Vega), who’s been priced out of the Heights and is relocating her beauty salon to the Bronx. That salon is the scene of “No Me Diga,” one of the musical’s ripest numbers and a reminder of why this haven of community gossip and genteel trash talk has become such an irreplaceable neighborhood fixture.
The same could be said for the cab company run by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), a business that keeps shrinking as his daughter Nina’s tuition fees keep mounting. Kevin’s star employee, Benny (a charming Corey Hawkins), is also Nina’s love interest, and their romantic bond serves as a kind of emotional fulcrum, balancing Nina’s growing disenchantment with school against her father’s stubborn insistence that she see it through. Where does she — or, for that matter, anyone — belong? Is leaving a kind of liberation, a betrayal or both? One of the finer points of “In the Heights” is that anyone who’s called the barrio home will have a different answer.
As far removed as a working-class barrio might be from ultra-rich Singapore, Chu tapped into similar elements of generational conflict and cultural confusion in his previous movie, “Crazy Rich Asians,” and showed a ready talent for squeezing those themes into deft, crowd-pleasing packages. Those same instincts are on display here, as are the musical-directing chops — the eye for color and expressive movement — that gave his contributions to the “Step Up” dance-movie franchise their own vibrant kick. He’s particularly attentive to the women in the cast, especially Barrera, who makes Vanessa’s ambition palpable in a performance of radiant intelligence and alertness. Another obvious standout is Merediz, who earned a Tony nomination for playing Abuela Claudia on Broadway, and who lovingly salutes her character’s immigrant journey with the stirring, kaleidoscopic “Paciencia y Fe.”
That means “Patience and Faith,” and “In the Heights” could at times use more of both. Chu doesn’t entirely avoid the jumpy, cover-it-from-every-angle style that afflicts so many contemporary movie musicals. During a vibrant nightclub sequence where Usnavi and Vanessa keep circling each other, you might long for a steadier visual hand, one that would just let the dancers dance without imposing its own fancy editorial footwork. Still, you understand the impulse behind it: a desire for the camera to be everywhere at every moment, to take in the sheer joyous enormity of what it sees.
That impulse brings about some cleverly conceived set-pieces: a gravity-defying dance alongside a fire escape; a synchronized swim routine for the catchy and suspenseful “96,000”; daubs of animation that make explicit this musical’s debt to fantasy as well as reality. But the most magical sequence has no need for digital embellishment. Nowhere do Chu’s instincts pay off more resoundingly than in “Carnaval del Barrio,” an exuberant block-party number that brings a beleaguered community together and turns a moment of profound collective sorrow into its opposite. You want to be there immediately — and for a few brief, indelible moments, you are.
‘In the Heights’
Rated: PG-13, for some language and suggestive references
Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes
Playing: Starts June 11 in general release where theaters are open and streaming on HBO Max
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