In the Heights feels as welcome and refreshing in the summer of 2021 as a piragua, the shaved-ice-and-syrup treat that makes an appearance early in the film’s big opening number, hawked from a rolling cart with an infernally catchy jingle. In Jon M. Chu’s new film adaptation of the Tony-winning 2008 musical, the small role of the piragüero—the guy pushing the cart—is played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, star of the original Broadway show as well as its composer and lyricist, and now, thanks to Hamilton, a household name around the world. The piragüero will show up a few times later in group scenes (and pop up in a post-credit stinger with a fellow member of the original cast), but Miranda’s role this time around is mostly behind the scenes, as a producer and adviser: The central role of Usnavi, the rhyme-spitting proprietor of a corner bodega in the gentrifying Washington Heights neighborhood, has been taken over (impeccably, it should be said up top) by his former Hamilton co-star Anthony Ramos.
A piragua hits the spot on a hot day, but it’s not the most substantial of delights: After a while, it melts away into syrupy slush, which could also be said of the filmed version of In the Heights. Transferring any story from stage to screen is a big lift, and the addition of diegetic music—the dreaded-by-some “people randomly bursting into song” effect—raises the degree of difficulty even higher. Probably no one who reflexively dislikes musicals will overcome that resistance as a result of watching In the Heights, and theater fans who have seen the show on stage may be annoyed by the changes the filmmakers have made to the narrative structure, especially when those changes ladle extra sentiment onto an already less-than-edgy story. Still, this movie succeeds at the hardest task a movie musical needs to pull off: the musical numbers, with few exceptions, soar in the way an in-story song has to soar to convince us that, given this situation and these characters, “randomly bursting into song” is a perfectly sensible thing to do.
A tacked-on framing device, in which Usnavi sets up the action of the play as if telling the story years later to a group of small children, adds clutter and distraction to an already overstuffed storyline. Every time we cut away to this pack of unrealistically attentive moppets, the movie’s momentum sags. But whenever we return to the swirling, dense-packed bustle of the Heights, where virtually every other scene takes place, the energy pours back into this loving portrait of a close-knit community in transition.
The bravura title number-—the scene that should have opened the movie, rather than that snoozy storytime setup—introduces all the major characters in an effortless weave of rapping, singing, and speaking (mostly in English with an occasional Spanish idiom tossed in) that functions almost like recitative in opera, moving the plot forward without bringing the musical rhythm to a halt. When that flow stops for dialogue by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who also wrote the book for the stage version, the seam is noticeable—even in the much-praised original production, the book was generally acknowledged as the show’s weakest link. But there’s never a long wait till the next song comes along. Nearly every major character gets some version of the classic “I Want” number associated with a traditional musical’s first act, and midway through the film, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, in a scene-stealing reprise of the role she originated onstage) delivers a showstopping dream-sequence-style solo song that flashes back to her childhood as a newly arrived Cuban immigrant.
Usnavi, an orphan whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was a small child, dreams of selling the bodega he inherited from them and restarting his life in the country he only remembers, it’s implied, through a veil of idealization. He lives with Abuela Claudia—not his grandmother by blood, as he specifies in that early exposition-heavy rap, but a matriarchal pillar of the whole community. Usnavi has an unrequited crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a local girl who’s desperate to escape the neighborhood and establish herself as a fashion designer. But the story’s main love plot is between soulful car service-dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) and brainy college student Nina (Leslie Grace), the neighborhood’s pride and joy, who’s just back from her first year at Stanford and secretly planning not to return—she is burdened by guilt over the sacrifices her father, owner of the car service (Jimmy Smits), has been making to send her away to school.
There are more story threads braiding in and out. Someone has bought a winning lottery ticket at Usnavi’s store, but as the hot midsummer days wear on, no one is coming to claim the prize. And Usnavi’s teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), a bright kid who works alongside him in the store, fears that his undocumented status will keep him from being able to apply for the college education he wants. Finally, Broadway veteran Daphne Rubin-Vega, Brooklyn 99’s Stephanie Beatriz, and Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco play a trio of beauty-salon employees who double as a gossipy Greek chorus, spilling the whole neighborhood’s business in double-entendre-laden detail. (One has to wonder if frame-story Usnavi is relating the lyrics speculating about the size of his own member to that wide-eyed crowd of kids.)
Each individual storyline examines a different set of tensions within this community: between the aspirations of immigrant parents and the very different plans of their first-generation kids, between diehard Heights residents and businesses pulling up roots to make way for encroaching gentrifiers, between those, like Usnavi and Vanessa, who long to get out of the neighborhood and those, like Nina, pining to find a way back to the security and community they once found there. And in a ripped-from-the-headlines addition that would have felt fresher at the time of the film’s intended release in the summer of 2020, a pair of characters attend a demonstration in support of the DREAM Act.
In the Heights can’t be said to dig deep into the issues of systemic inequality and racism that raising the specter of the Dreamers inevitably evokes. It’s not a study of urban poverty or New York housing policy; it’s a lightly plotted musical celebration of the multiplicity of Spanish-speaking cultures that coexist and overlap in the city, as demonstrated by the second-act showstopper “Carnaval del Barrio,” a Dominican vs. Puerto Rican vs. Mexican vs. Cuban dance-off that spontaneously erupts during a citywide blackout—a song about national pride and the immigrant experience that can’t help but conjure the famous rooftop performance of “America” in West Side Story (not to mention whetting the musical-loving viewer’s appetite for the upcoming Steven Spielberg remake of that Stephen Sondheim-Leonard Bernstein classic).
The choreography is by Christopher Scott, who, like Chu, also worked on the dance-centric Step Up franchise. In the big crowd scenes especially, the dancing is well framed to showcase both the performers’ athleticism and the witty character touches that make them not just dancers but actors at the same time. Chu does what he can—sometimes a bit too much—to avoid filming these production numbers with run-of-the-mill proscenium-style framing. A dance scene at a public swimming pool depends more heavily on Busby Berkeley-style overhead angles than any movie made since the height of the Great Depression really needs to. But later, a lovers’ pas de deux that starts with the couple on their building’s fire escape takes a magical-realist turn that requires an Old Hollywood-style suspension of disbelief, and at least for this sappy viewer, earns it.
In the Heights’ many interlocking stories don’t always find or keep their momentum. The two pleasant if hardly tempestuous romance plots proceed with too few obstacles to create much suspense, and questions such as “will the beautiful valedictorian with a hunky devoted boyfriend return to Stanford?” and “which of these working-class but not desperately poor characters might have won a $96,000 Lotto prize?” are hardly the stuff of wrenching drama. But In the Heights exists mainly to be a bright-colored clothesline, strung between two picturesquely shabby tenements, from which to hang a bunch of deeply hummable pop ballads and rapid-fire raps. Miranda began composing the score when he was only a sophomore in college, and this half-sung/half-spoken show stands, in its way, as a brilliant piece of juvenilia, a preliminary sketch for a more ambitious sung-through musical like Hamilton. But In the Heights’ carefree summertime setting—bare midriffs, open fire hydrants, sexy block parties, that passing piragua cart—should be enough to attract viewers who have been stuck inside for the past year, longing to return to a world where such public explosions of communal joy are possible. On June 11, the movie will be released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, but there’s a reason it was the first film I chose to see in the theater after more than a year away, and though it may not be the best movie I see for the rest of 2021, or even the rest of the summer, it made for a glorious welcome back.