Previously, we had a big, splashy musical film for Spanish speakers. It was called Coco, and it was good. However, that was set in Mexican culture, and anyone who knows Latin America knows that there’s not much overlap between Mexico and the Caribbean, even with the shared language. This year, we have two musical event movies about the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, and other islanders on our shores, In the Heights and the remake of West Side Story. Having seen the former, I must report that Mr. Spielberg will have to bring his best game if he’s going to improve on the joyful experience that’s out this week.
Our rapping narrator is Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who tends a bodega on the corner of 181st Street in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. Behind that shop counter, he feels his life slipping away from him and saves up his money to buy a bar back in the Dominican Republic, where he immigrated from as a child. In the meantime, he observes what goes down on his block during a sweltering summer week, as Stanford freshman Nina (Leslie Grace) returns from school feeling alienated in California and drawn to ex-boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works for her dad’s car service. The story is framed by Usnavi re-telling the events years later on a beach, when his young daughter Sueñito asks about the meaning of her name.
This is based on the Broadway musical conceived by songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda and dramatist Quiara Alegría Hudes. Her script is considerably altered, since the landscape changed immeasurably for immigrants between the stage play’s debut in 2005 and the Trump years, when the film was supposed to come out. Fans of the show will miss Nina’s song “Everything I Know,” although it’s replaced in a moving way when her dad (Jimmy Smits) responds to her finding a new sense of purpose by telling her, “This is the moment you become better than me, mi hija. You can see a future that I can’t. Eres boricua.”
The script does much to keep director Jon M. Chu on track. This is his follow-up to Crazy Rich Asians, and it holds together better as a big, sprawling, multigenerational saga that provides roles to many different actors. The Bronx is a long way from the tony enclaves of Singapore, yet he and choreographer Christopher Scott (who accompanies Chu from the Step Up movies) make excellent use of the locations, with dance moves for the manicurists in the nail salon and the domino players in the park. With its references to the mainstays of life in the Big Apple, this movie does for New York what La La Land did for L.A. Just like Damien Chazelle’s film, this is a story about youthful dreams and how they can force us into hard decisions.
If somehow you haven’t taken in Miranda’s stage musical Hamilton, this is a prime opportunity to witness his astonishing gift for words and music. Hamilton mixes rap with traditional Broadway musical styles, but here he injects hip-hop into salsa and merengue, and the mix comes off just as well. The words come pell-mell in two languages (“I’ll be a businessman, richer than Nina’s daddy. / Tiger Woods and I on the links, and he’s my caddy. / My money’s makin’ money, I’ll go from po’ to mo’ dough / Keep the bling, I want the brass ring like Frodo.”) yet Miranda can do more than just cleverness. He can wrench your heart, too, in the number “Alabanza,” when a character dies and the denizens of the Heights come to the apartment building to pay their respects.
I don’t always like Chu’s direction of the dance sequences, but he smartly pulls tricks that you couldn’t execute on the stage. When Benny sings “96,000,” the camera tracks him as he walks alongside the public swimming pool while dancers perform both behind him in the water and in front of him by the lockers. (Cutely, the dancers in the pool use the railings like the barre in a ballet studio.) Later, Benny and Nina defy gravity and dance on the side of their apartment building to “When the Sun Goes Down,” and it’s a delirious romantic moment. Some people think that musicals are for characters whose emotions are so big that they have to be expressed in song and dance. I think that’s wrong — the music lets filmmakers transcend the bounds of boring reality and make us fly. That’s what musicals are for.
I’m trying to find a weak link in the cast, and I’m failing. Miranda, who portrayed Usnavi on the stage, here takes the smaller role of the piragüero selling shaved ice from a sidewalk cart. As the old lady whom everyone on the block calls “Abuela,” Olga Merediz (reprising her role from the play) knocks the stuffing out of “Paciencia y Fe” as she looks back on her childhood in Cuba and her life in New York. The smaller roles are inhabited by the likes of Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, and Dascha Polanco, giving the movie a luxurious feel, and who knew Smits could sing? Ramos is an affable guide to this neighborhood, spitting Miranda’s rapid-fire rhymes with intimidating speed and fluency and making the opening title song grab you by the collar. If there’s going to be a breakout star of this film, it should be the classically beautiful Melissa Barrera as the aspiring fashion designer whom Usnavi carries a torch for. A veteran from Mexican TV, she sports a hellacious voice and a flair for salsa dancing in the number “The Club,” and she even sounds Puerto Rican when she speaks English. I wonder how she managed that.
As I mentioned before, In the Heights was supposed to come out last June, and Warner Bros. postponed the date for a whole year when the pandemic hit. Now I know why: This film captures the very essence of a blazing summer in New York, where the asphalt reflects the heat back up at you and you camp out by the tiny A/C unit in your apartment. Releasing this film in December would have made no more sense than putting out a Christmas movie in July. What better way to escape the heat than to sit once again in an air-conditioned theater with a bunch of your immigrant friends and see these people claim their block of the big city? Top that off with a cold piragua (blue coconut for me, I think) and you’ll have a perfect evening.
In the Heights
Starring Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera. Directed by Jon M. Chu. Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on her own musical libretto. Rated PG-13.