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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In The Heights

In The Heights joyfully brings Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first hit musical to the screen

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In The Heights
Photo: Warner Bros.

Paciencia y fe have paid off for the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical In The Heights. Plans for a film based on the exuberant and lyrically dextrous Broadway show, Miranda’s first hit, date back to 2008, when Universal Pictures was set to produce with Kenny Ortega attached to direct. The production was canceled that same year (reportedly due to the lack of bankable Latinx stars in the cast), then revived in 2016 with the help of (ugh) The Weinstein Company. In the wake of all the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the film rights were picked up by Warner Bros., with Jon M. Chu tapped to direct. Filming finally took place in 2019, and a release date was set for June 26, 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and In The Heights was, like so many other movies, pushed back.

But watching this effervescent movie musical, a loving tribute to the Latinx communities that have made Washington Heights their home, you’d never guess it had such an arduous journey to the big screen. Chu, Miranda, and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (the librettist for the original musical) preserve much of the intimacy of the Broadway show while ramping up the splendor and significantly expanding the time frame. Though Miranda reunites with Olga Merediz, who reprises the role she originated on stage, and with Christopher Jackson, an alum of In The Heights and Hamilton, this buoyant adaptation goes beyond merely re-creating its source material for the screen. Here, the timeless quality of Miranda’s original story, which combined wanderlust and an exploration of the Latin American diaspora, meets a timely discussion on dehumanizing immigration policies. Not all of the updates are seamless; some of the meaningful tension from the original is sacrificed for an unambiguously happy ending. Still, In The Heights irrepressible energy—transmitted by a big cast of rising stars and veteran performers—is the perfect note on which to kick off this summer’s blockbuster season.

Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos takes over for Miranda as Usnavi, a first-generation New Yorker who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, the “single greatest little place in the Caribbean.” The film adds a framing device that doesn’t feel wholly necessary, especially as the titular song efficiently introduces the players and setting. Usnavi’s bodega, which he runs with his cousin Sonny (Vampires Vs. The Bronx’s Gregory Diaz IV), is one of the hubs of the Heights, along with a salon owned by Daniela (Tony winner Daphne Rubin-Vega) and a car service run by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). Popping in and out of their establishments are friends, neighbors, and employees: Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer and the object of Usnavi’s affection; Benny (Corey Hawkins), a charming dispatcher in love with Nina (luminous newcomer Leslie Grace), a Stanford student who’s returned for the summer with more than just a tuition bill; and a piragüero (Miranda himself) constantly hawking his wares. The characters’ stories are complementary but unique; they’re united by the concept of finding and making a home, even as you continue on your own distinct journey.

This enclave hums with vitality, even under the now-constant threat of gentrification. Adversity is a fact of life, but so is joy, as demonstrated in the opening number, when a lament in verse over rising rents quickly gives way to effusive dancing. The shifts aren’t abrupt: In The Heights capably balances its grounded moments with the big song-and-dance numbers. Ramos’ Usnavi is disarmingly naturalistic, even as he joins his friends in fantasizing about winning the lottery. “96,000” is one of the musical’s standout songs; with its overlapping vocals and musical genre fusion, it can be seen as a proto-Hamilton arrangement. Filmed at the Highbridge Pool, with hundreds of extras and nods to Esther Williams from choreographer Christopher Scott, the number is the film’s biggest and splashiest. Chu—finally tackling a bona fide musical after flirting with the genre in Crazy Rich Asians, his Step Up sequels, and a number of concert documentariesmanages to make a single intersection feel as expansive as a whole world. But with “96,000,” he and cinematographer Alice Brooks struggle with scale (they lose track of all the bodies in frame, to the point where it’s hard to tell sometimes where you’re supposed to be looking), not to mention some dubious green-screen dancing.

In The Heights
In The Heights
Photo: Warner Bros.

Like Nina, the pacing wobbles a bit but quickly recovers. In some ways, this adaptation is leaner than the original—a few songs have been cut, as well as one secondary character. Elsewhere, the film adds rich detail. The welcome-home dinner made by Abuela Claudia (Merediz) boasts so much mouth-watering food: pernil, flan, tamales, arroz con gandules. Mitchell Travers’ costume design incorporates street fashion with gorgeous polleras and sevillanas, while the score from Miranda and his previous collaborators, Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, deftly remixes the reggaeton, salsa, merengue, rap, and traditional showtunes that made up the theatrical production. As Nina, who found herself adrift in the WASP-y world of Stanford, settles into the rhythms of home once more, her flat-ironed hair springs back to curly life. Even the cast’s backgrounds—the performers are of Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Panamanian, Colombian, and Bolivian descent, among others—are key to telling this layered story of finding commonality and community. The whole vivacious crew, from Miranda collaborator Ramos to Rubin-Vega to Vida breakout Barrera, make “Carnaval Del Barrio” the musical number to beat this year. It’s hard to pick a favorite performance, but with soul-stirring, son-infused “Paciencia Y Fe,” Merediz reminds us why she’s Latinx acting royalty.

In The Heights slice-of-life portraiture suggests a less ambitious undertaking than Hamilton, but it tells a story as expansive as that of a fledgling nation. Through both musicals, Miranda demonstrates how ingrained people of color are in this country’s history: Before he reimagined a pivotal chapter in United States history with Black and Latinx actors, the acclaimed multi-hyphenate threw a spotlight on marginalized people’s fight against displacement. At the core of In The Heights, on stage or screen, is movement—as migration, as immigration, as dancing, as code-switching, as the shift from friends to lovers. After nearly 13 years, it’s time for audiences to join the parranda.