Once upon a time, Lin-Manuel Miranda set his prodigious sights on Broadway with an inaugural, autobiographical musical that quickly set him up for New York exposure and (eventually) worldwide attention through his obviously ubiquitous follow-up. In the Heights, however, is the more personal passion project, a send up to an ongoing cultural landmark barrio translated into an ensemble story about community, self-expression, and the immigrant experience by way of Nuevo York. In this belated cinematic adaptation from director Jon Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), In the Heights is a bombastic, endlessly energetic redux of its own material, feeling far more 2021 than 2008.
Much of the musical’s narrative largely remains intact, though with a few tweaks here and there, including an introductory framing device where we see the film’s driving character, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos of Hamilton fame), retelling the events of his own story, which is an almost meta reflection of Miranda and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes revisiting their own original creation. The film begins with one of its hard-to-top showstoppers, “In the Heights,” which outlines Usnavi’s daily routine as a bodega shop owner struggling to save what he can, so that one day, he can return to the Dominican Republic and live a more idyllic lifestyle.
As the film often repeats, the multicultural neighborhood of Washington Heights is gradually disappearing, with its latinx residents getting priced out of their businesses and homes. Some are leaving voluntarily, including Nina (Leslie Grace), a straight-A Puerto Rican student who’s just returned for the summer after a harsh culture-shock during her first year at Stanford. Her story particularly resonates for this east coast Puerto Rican who uprooted to the Bay Area almost a decade ago. And that’s probably the point, whether you’re Dominican, Cuban, Mexican, or from Queens, In the Heights aims to remove the invisibility of these cultural sects, because things only disappear when they’re forgotten.
It would be difficult to forget In the Heights anytime soon, though. The musical clearly sets out to amp up the technical and spectacle of the play in possibly too many ways, sometimes pushing the audience outside of its own bubble of irresistible enthusiasm. “96,000” is probably the movie at its most joyful and exhilarating, seamlessly blending what makes a film larger than life with the off-the-wall immersion of seeing this choreography up close on the stage.
Other set pieces can be a little harder to fall for, particularly when Chu and his creative team try to flow in magical realism by way of artwork on the screen and gravity-defying motion. At times it’s as inspired as the social media scene from Crazy Rich Asians or as romantically escapist as the Griffith Observatory dance in La La Land. Other times, it makes the musical feel like a music video, and while the latter is far from inherently lesser, the style just doesn’t match the rest of the wonder onscreen.
But these are all nitpicks in an effort to distract from wresting too much synopsis from this already recognizable story, which also includes Usnavi’s will-they-won’t-they-could-they-should-they with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and a stealth heart subplot about his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), whom Ramos actually played during his Regional tour for the original musical. The hook of In the Heights isn’t necessarily its message, one that appears to have been reworked to match the moment of a more dire America. In some ways, the class warfare of it all is heightened, while some of the more racially pronounced animosities between characters, including Benny (Corey Hawkins) and his boss, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), is downplayed in favor of a more focused theme about celebration in the midst of adversity through diversity.
This all mostly works, and in large part thanks to Chu’s understanding of what makes Miranda’s worlds so engaging. Yes, Ramos is an absolute thrill as the heart of this movie, but like in Hamilton, the show is generous in its appreciation for the entire cast. It’s a subtle, but essential strength of In the Heights to give its budding fandom more than enough characters to latch onto and feel seen by, without pandering or leaning too heavily on schmaltz. When In the Heights is just about to overdo its own cheesy sentimentality, it sharply hits a minor key, like its standout number for Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who gives an Oscar-worthy supporting performance that is sure to wring hearts.
Ultimately, In the Heights is a movie crammed with huge, ambitious, go-for-it swings that rarely miss, but also all the right moves when it comes to nailing the small details that give the film its urgency and timeless appeal. So it’s no wonder this hot, summer getaway has the potential to be one of the definitive event movies of the entire year. As the trailers promise, the film is bursting with life and specificity in all its music, but the real poetry is in the streets, where everyday extras fill up and lend a beautiful hand to making this barrio a true carnival.