Every reaction to a work of art is always linked to the moment in which we see it. How it came to exist in the first place, and what the world is like when we view it, matters. So when a movie first hits theaters, it’s ridiculous to pretend it can be evaluated from some objective, context-neutral vantage point. With the perfectly pitched, spectacularly revealing, sensational screen adaptation of In the Heights, I wouldn’t even try.
One of the first major films to be delayed out of its summer 2020 slot, the long-awaited release of In the Heights will always be tied up with the 21st century’s first world-altering pandemic. The musical’s creator and composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, briefly campaigned for the movie to bypass theaters altogether and debut on streaming platforms, thinking it might be, in essence, a morale boost for audiences stuck at home. But he ultimately didn’t win out.
Now he says it was probably for the best. Instead of creeping solely onto people’s televisions, In the Heights is exploding into reopening cinemas and onto HBO Max at the same time — another pandemic-era innovation on Warner Bros.’ part — and unless my spidey sense has gone wonky during the last year, I think it’s poised to be a massive hit.
The musical on which the movie is based opened on Broadway in March 2008, in the waning months of George W. Bush’s presidency; it closed during the Obama administration; the movie’s landing in theaters post-Trump. For some shows, that wouldn’t mean much. For In the Heights, it does.
In the Heights is a tale of dreamers (and, in the movie version, DREAMers), a mostly Latino community in upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. It’s set during a very hot summer when a blackout occurs and the community starts to lose faith in those dreams.
Until recently, a movie like this would have been a huge gamble for a major Hollywood studio, largely because the finished film doesn’t have obviously “bankable” stars in the lead roles — which for most of Hollywood history has meant white stars or, at least, stars who movie executives think white audiences will recognize. Even a few years ago, Universal — which had originally optioned the project, but eventually dropped it — wanted Shakira or Jennifer Lopez for a lead role. No matter that the Broadway show won four Tony awards, including Best Musical. Broadway is one thing; Hollywood is a whole different world.
The movie languished in development hell at Universal, so Miranda picked up a biography of Alexander Hamilton in an airport, and history moved again. Hamilton became a sensation, joining a larger movement of pop culture phenomena like Black Panther and Get Out, which shattered the notion that only stories about white people were “universal.” In early 2017, once Hamilton was a hit, the Weinstein Company signed on to push In the Heights to the big screen.
That Weinstein Company.
In the wake of the explosive Harvey Weinstein stories that emerged in October 2017 — and launched their own industry-shaking moment — Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the musical’s book, got the project back from the Weinstein Company and regained full control. Not long afterward, Warner Bros. successfully courted them for the suddenly buzzy adaptation, which was eventually slated for a June 2020 release.
It was a smart move, smarter than Warner Bros. could have ever anticipated. The story that In the Heights tells is particularly well-suited for a moment when it feels to many like the world is starting to reopen. Set mostly on a “block that was disappearing” amid ubiquitous gentrification (per the film’s opening lines), it’s the tale of a bodega owner named Usnavi. Usnavi came to the US from the Dominican Republican when he was a kid and has not-so-little dreams of going back and running his father’s old restaurant. On Broadway, Usnavi’s role was originated by Miranda; in the movie he’s played by Anthony Ramos, whose beauty, charm, and easy grace are a revelation even if you’ve previously seen him onstage and screen. (Ramos’s credits include playing John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, and Ramon in the 2018 A Star Is Born.) He’s a movie star, through and through.
For now, Usnavi dreams of the beach but works with his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) at the store, supplying the neighborhood with cold drinks, light and sweet coffee, lottery tickets, and anything else one might need on an ordinary day in New York City. He lives with Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her Tony-nominated role from the Broadway show, which she played for its entire run). She is his surrogate grandmother and plays that role for most of the neighborhood’s young people, too.
Usnavi has long been in love with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works at the local beauty salon but dreams of moving downtown and pursuing her goal of becoming a fashion designer. Another young woman, Nina (Leslie Grace), is the daughter of the widowed neighborhood car service owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). She’s the local kid who made good, home for the summer from Stanford, where she’s on the verge of dropping out. Her high school sweetheart Benny (Corey Hawkins) works for the car service and dreams of taking it over someday.
There are a host of other characters in the film, too. Miranda has a small part as Piragua Guy, dishing out flavored ices and dueling playfully with the guy who owns the ice cream truck. That guy’s played by Chris Jackson, who played Benny on Broadway and later, George Washington in Hamilton.
Hudes adapted her book for the stage show into the screenplay, updating it here and there, cutting some storylines, adding references to undocumented people and the fight for DREAMers, pulling the tale out of its 2008 origins and into today. Miranda made a handful of changes to the music as well (including tweaking a line about former President Donald Trump). In the Heights is still about a community that knows trouble going through a three-day blackout in the heat of summer. Those who’ve seen it onstage will find a different but familiar story — now with an expanded sensibility.
What cinema affords so readily to its storytellers is the ability to visually build a full, richly layered world in a way you really can’t do onstage. In the Heights director Jon M. Chu, hot off his Crazy Rich Asians success, leans into the possibilities. Now, Washington Heights is a character, not just a few buildings. Its residents are singing and dancing on the street corners, in the alleys, in living rooms, in salsa clubs. The film is an intoxicating capture of both a culture and a city. No wonder Warner Bros. is premiering the film — on the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival — in the actual Heights.
The nervy electricity and joy of the film, arriving at this moment in time, are an unbeatable combo. It’s hard to imagine a movie-hungry audience returning to the theater and not being swept away. (It was my own first movie back, and I sure was.)
Can I find stuff to criticize about In the Heights? Absolutely. At times, I found myself a little frustrated with Chu’s directing choices. He’s trying to make an intimate and personal film, one that really feels like a movie and not like a stage production adapted for the screen. That means getting up close to actors and frequently cutting between shots, which is not in itself a terrible choice. But it can come at the expense of letting the film breathe and feel like a movie musical. Old-school musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age — think Singin’ in the Rain, or West Side Story, toward which this movie makes subtle gestures — often rest more on wide shots that let us watch the dancers do their thing. At times here I wanted to yell “HOLD STILL!” so I could see amazing performers — and they are all truly fantastic — do their thing.
But Chu at least knows he’s doing it, and he sometimes lets the camera swing back so we can indulge in the effervescence. One show-stopping scene, shot at the Highbridge Pool, knowingly draws on lavish synchronized water numbers from Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s; others lean on the vibrance of dance and cultural traditions from the various Latin American cultures that make up the neighborhood. I don’t have those roots, but even I can tell there’s enormous specificity and care in the crafting of In the Heights’ world.
It does feel a bit as if In the Heights tends toward elision when it comes to the reason the block is “disappearing”: the gentrification creeping into the barrio, which drives the local hair salon up to the Bronx and manifests in a new neighborhood dry cleaner that charges a whopping $9 per shirt. Those forces are definitely present in the film. In the first number, Usnavi sings, “Our neighbors started packin’ up and pickin’ up / And ever since, the rents went up / It’s gotten mad expensive, but we live with just enough.” But an audience that’s not attuned to gentrification patterns might miss them and read what’s happening in the Heights as a natural shift rather than one rooted in the broader economics of the city.
The neighborhood people know what’s really going on, though. So in a sense, that says everything about the movie and the show more broadly: It doesn’t feel the need to hold the hands of an audience of outsiders. Spanish is sprinkled throughout. The lyrics move fast and fluidly. You need to pay attention, and if you don’t catch everything, well, that’s more on you than on the film. In a movie industry that’s proved resistant for so long to anything that doesn’t put white culture at the center, it’s exhilarating to watch, no matter where individual audience members fall.
It is still, in the end, a story about the details and moments that make up the texture of life, and the ways the foods and items and people and dances and stories that we make together fill our souls. That specificity and Miranda’s electrifying music made In the Heights a surprise hit on Broadway, and they’re what give this adaptation its heartbeat. The film is a beautiful, stirring story about people, as Abuela Claudia puts it, who are “asserting our dignity in small ways,” making sure “little details that tell the world we are not invisible” get their chance on center stage.
And, of course, it’s arriving in summer 2021 — a time when, in America at least, it’s starting to feel like the days of an isolating, brutalizing pandemic are waning. A lot has happened in America, and to the communities in the barrio, since In the Heights’ Broadway debut, its struggles to make it to the big screen, and its delayed release. Midway through the film, when a blackout hits the neighborhood, the characters sing “we are powerless,” and it stings, no matter who or where you are.
So if In the Heights hits different this summer than it might have last year, or 10 years ago, it’s because we’re watching it in a different world. The chorus of “Paciencia Y Fe” — patience and faith — has a different resonance. The need to assert dignity in small ways, to actively not disappear, feels new. That’s the mark of a vital work of art: that it has something new to say each time someone is willing to listen. I suspect we’ll be listening to In the Heights for a long, long while.
In the Heights opens in theaters and on HBO Max on June 10.