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After being delayed nearly a year, In the Heights is out in the world, a bright, vibrant crowd-pleaser that celebrates all the joys of summer in the city. Director Jon M. Chu puts the movie musical’s songs front and center, and creates an interesting hybrid approach to the unreality of the genre. Some flourishes land better than others, which is an inevitable consequence of a Broadway adaptation. The more fantastical numbers are too literal, and the updated script by Quiara Alegría Hudes adds awkward, #resistance friendly political dialogue. But those issues are ultimately minor. The film is a buffet of sight and sound that succeeds as a summertime musical.
On Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda may have played Usnavi, the show’s hero, but by now he has aged out of the role. Anthony Ramos plays the young bodega owner in the film, and he introduces us to the main characters, many of whom yearn to escape Washington Heights, the gentrifying Manhattan neighborhood where they live. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) wants to leave the nail salon and work as a fashion designer, while Nina (Leslie Grace) returns from a year at Stanford and faces a major identity crisis. All these characters, no matter how minor or major, are involved in each other’s lives. Gossip is inevitable, but it fosters a sense of community, like in the song “No Me Diga,” and neighborhood matriarch Claudia (Olga Merediz) is a nurturing force.
Beyond some romantic subplots and Usnavi’s desire to return to the Dominican Republic, there is not much story. Instead, the show is an opportunity to put the experience of Caribbean Latinx immigrants in the spotlight. “Breathe” is about the challenges of assimilation, while “96,000” reveals the perils of income inequality. Chu presents these songs with color and passion, and it’s fun to see how he puts them in the context of recognizable urban settings: There are songs in the streets, in nail salons, and swimming pools. The most rousing numbers involve the most dancing. Chu and choreographer Christopher Scott pack the frame with performers, and it is a joy to watch them in sync. One highlight is a dance scene in a nightclub that becomes a joyous celebration of movement.
If In the Heights succeeds as an ensemble, then the character-driven moments are a little trickier. As an idealistic, educated student, the script turns Nina into a political striver. There is a subplot where she learns a young character is undocumented, and it leads to her speaking in eye-rolling platitudes that sometimes sound more like sound bites than dialogue. An important segue between the first and second acts in the Broadway show typically relies on the magical realism that is only possible on stage; here, that transition is downright perfunctory (a spotlight carries more metaphorical meaning on stage than screen). All the actors are perfectly cast—Barrera is the clear stand-out, in a star-making performance—but even they cannot save Chu’s constant “swing for the fences” approach to emotional moments.
A strange, borderline distracting component of In the Heights is its frequent product placement and integration. At first, it was a charming non-sequitur, like when we are in Usnavi’s bodega and Chu pushes inviting bottles of Coca-Cola. But then it keeps going: Several uses of a Tide Pen grind the story to a halt. By the time the camera makes sure we can see what brand of jeans Usnavi prefers, it feels as if Warner Bros. is preying upon the goodwill of their core audience, who have wanted to see this film for years. There is also an unintentional, bitter irony to the amount of brazen capitalism in a show about how stratified American society is unfair to working class immigrants.
Miranda may have a minor part in this film as a street vendor, yet his presence looms large. His point of view—optimistic, earnest, anthropologically sensitive—is one that all his characters share. But there’s a constant tension between authentic emotional connection and Miranda’s identity as a “theater kid” who tries a touch too hard. The best thing about In the Heights is how Chu and his charismatic cast help Miranda’s show overcome its cringeworthy impulses and finds a way to connect with anyone who can’t already sing “Carnaval del Barrio” from memory. Chu recognizes Miranda’s masterstroke: by revealing how this specific neighborhood shares our dreams, the film ultimately is for everyone.
In the Heights will be in area theaters and HBO Max starting June 11.