‘In the Heights’ Review: Movie Musical Streaming HBO Max, in Theaters

Paciencia y fe. Patience and faith. It’s what Abuela Claudia — in so many ways the emotional center of  In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sun-splashed ode to the immigrant dream — preaches again and again, wearing it on her face, in her bones, even when she’s not saying it aloud. It’s a creed, a word of caution, a bit of humbling advice, and, as practiced by Abuela Claudia herself, a way of making one’s way in the world — especially if that world is America, and the one hacking their way through its indignities over the years is, like Abuela Claudia, an immigrant, a working-class outsider who holds close to her community as if her life depends on it. In the Heights argues: maybe it does. 

That creed must have been something that Hollywood upstart Miranda — alongside writer Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the book for the musical) and director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) — must have kept in mind as their project. It’s one based on a Tony-winning breakout; a charismatic, complicated piece of work by theater’s Next Big Thing, which languished in development hell for a decade. It seems you cannot tell the story of In the Heights — a musical about dreamers and dreams, people on the verge of breaking out, if only circumstance didn’t seem poised to work against them — without knowing that the story the musical tells has some disheartening echoes in its own path from stage to screen, or even simply it’s path from the small stage to Broadway. Much of it can be summed up in a recent Miranda quote from Variety: “I would get pitches from producers who only had West Side Story in their cultural memory.”

'In the Heights' Review
‘In the Heights’ Review

Such is the situation. It wasn’t enough, Miranda explained, for one of the show’s central characters, Nina, to drop out of Stanford for reasons less dramatic than an unexpected pregnancy or domestic abuse — reasons more damaging than damning of the institutions In the Heights wants, in its friendly but passionate way, to hold to account. When, after the great success of the show on Broadway, Hollywood (by way of Miramax and Universal Studios) balked at the idea of a studio-backed barrio musical, by and about Latinos, that had no name-brand “stars” — that category of actor which often enough depends on someone taking a chance on an unknown. It’s the “self-defeating cycle,” as Miranda has said, of an industry demanding Latino stars in order to justify its financial investment in the project while doing little otherwise to build a pool of Latino stars, fit to satisfy such a demand. It’s as if immaculate conception were a prerequisite for inclusion.

But — paciencia y fe. The movie is here now, courtesy of Warner Brothers, after being delayed by a year thanks to the pandemic. It is arriving just in time: theaters reopened, pandemic somewhat averted, everyone itching to get outside in celebration of something — anything! Itching to be near each other again. Reviews of In the Heights must take care, as a rule, to recite that the movie simply feels good to watch, with its constant temperature checks reminding us that it’s a New York summer, and its big, busy dance scenes — an entire neighborhood taking to the intersection of 175th and Amsterdam, in the real Washington Heights of the musical’s setting, to cut loose — and its gorgeous, talented cast, buoyed along for 2 and half hours by songs with memorable swing, gigantic doses of feeling, multiple love stories, poignant conflicts, and a pervading sense of community that somehow surpasses the forces peeling that community apart.

In the Heights is a hopeful musical — not least because it milks substantial power from the threats overhanging all of the above. The changing face of the barrio, in which old shops are getting bought out, rents are rising; a woman like Abuella Claudia can’t even afford the local dry cleaner anymore. The government is threatening to renege on its promise to beneficiaries of the DREAM Act, which ripples quietly through the movie until its immediate implications become explicit. And if that’s not enough, everyone’s got these dreams they’re clinging to — their sueñitos, as Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), manager of a local corner store, tells us from some point in the future.

There’s Usnavi’s dream: of moving back to the Dominican Republic, which he left for the U.S. when he was eight years old, to reopen his father’s old beachside bar. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the young woman he’s been crushing on, wants to move downtown to jump start her career in fashion, but doesn’t have the credit history to make that easy, nor the ready-made guarantors needed to co-sign on her behalf. Usnavi and Vanessa are tight with Nina (Leslie Grace), the girl who made it all the way to Stanford, who’s back for the summer after what was, by all accounts, a rough first year. Nina’s father, Kevin (the legendary Jimmy Smits, wonderful here), runs a car service and is, it’s clear, willing to do whatever it takes to foot the bill for his daughter to stay afloat at that prestigious school. (Nina’s ex, Benny, played by Corey Hawkins, is in the inconvenient position of working for her father.) If getting out of Washington Heights was Nina’s dream, keeping her there — underwriting her successes best he can — is her father’s. Needless to say, these dreams and others start to wear on each other. 

That’s hardly the extent of the cast, by the way, and in fact, some of the best turns are from relatively minor players: Olga Merediz as “Abuela” Claudia — Tony-nominated for her Broadway turn and equally captivating here; Rent legend Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela, whose salon is being priced out of its location, in one of the most effective subplots in the entire movie; and Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny de la Vega, Usnavi’s cousin, who doesn’t want to flee to DR with Usnavi because, unlike him, he has no memory of the place. He grew up here, in the United States. But even that fact comes with caveats.

From those growing matters of aspiration and unease, to say nothing of the needs and wisdom of the rest of its broad cast, In the Heights spins its lively, complicated tale. An aspirational immigrant story that hits most every mark of the genre, but flows and overlaps and grows dense in unexpected ways. In both Miranda and Chu’s trademark styles, this is all threaded together with life spilling into the streets, musical numbers that fold reality into fantasy with an aplomb that’s as pleasurable as it is overwhelming. The music mixes hip hop and salsa with nods to both Cole Porter and Chita Rivera, and the dance styles are equally far-reaching, drifting as far afoot from reality as a phantasmagoric modern ballet detailing a Cuban immigrant’s difficult path to peace on U.S. soil. It’s overripe with cleverness: every trick of the trade being thrown into a story that is, already, bursting at the seams to hit as many marks as it can. 

Yes, it’s a story about wanting to move up in the world. But A Raisin in the Sun, this is not. That play, by Lorraine Hansberry, has a title copped from a Langston Hughes poem about dreams deferred; the play ends on an accordingly ambivalent note. But In the Heights is, by knowing contrast, an exercise in aspiration: a feat of celebration, a musical that upgrades those dreams from the waitlist to the incoming class while also taking care to wring real drama out of the tensions and conflicts inherent to such progress, often with a sincerity that’s nevertheless knowing and smart. 

For In the Heights, these tensions are a matter of form. Miranda’s songwriting style makes good on a the ability of a musical to switch tones all of a sudden, lurching from the broad joyousness of a group number to a sonic spotlight on the internal chaos of the outlier — that party pooper at the margins who can’t quite get with everyone else’s vibe, who has doubts that’d be left unexpressed but for the fact of us, the audience, getting a peak behind the curtain of their feelings. In the rollicking “96,000,” set at a community pool, most everyone in the central cast gets in a few lines about what they’d do with $96K in lotto winnings, their dreams unspooling with musical styles (with dances to match) custom-fit to their personalities — a little Busby Berkeley here, a little B-boy contortion there. But it comes to nearly a dead halt when Vanessa, whose hopes have been somewhat dashed of late, who feels trapped, chimes in. Suddenly we’re wading in a waist-high sea of an outlier’s dirge: She’s got to get the hell out of here. “If I win the lottery, you’ll never see me again,” she sings. “Damn,” raps Usnavi, “we only jokin.’ Stay broke then!” Buzzkill averted, we’re back to business.

This particular moment isn’t a favorite of mine; it feels like the scene is trying too hard to have it both ways, giving voice to Vanessa’s doubts but with an utter lack of appeal, a moroseness, that almost feels like the movie has completely turned on her — which it hasn’t. Usnavi and Vanessa’s incursion into a later number, “Carnaval del Barrio,” with a little rainy-parade realism about the  future of the barrio, feels a little more worked through, sung to melodies that don’t make them come off as quite as much of a drag. The melodies are compatible with the occasion; like the community surrounding them, the song seems to hear them out — while also, ultimately, letting everyone else argue for the necessity of joy. It feels like real discourse. What matters more: the traditions of collective survival and celebration, or a sharp change of focus that sees the threats to that barrio as not merely imminent but already here?

These differences, and the sacrifices, disappointments, and joys that accompany them, are what give In the Heights much of its power. They’re also what make Miranda’s work here and elsewhere ripe for counterpoint, in some corners. For all of his commercial, critical and industry success — a level of crossover fame typically denied to Broadway stars, to Tony wins, a Pulitzer win and nomination, love from the MacArthur foundation, a bit of poaching by Disney and the rest of Hollywood, and, most crucially, widespread affection, not just name recognition, from a besotted public — Miranda’s biggest projects have tended also to attract a healthy amount of debate over their meaning and purpose, to say nothing of the politics undergirding all that flashy, progressive, earnest, and undoubtedly novel joy. Novelist and critic Ishmael Reed, sensitive to the irony of musical about Alexander Hamilton that somehow skated past the founding father’s crimes against Black and Indigenous people being fronted by a cast of rapping minorities, wrote a two-act play in which Miranda got haunted by the ghosts of America’s historical violence a la Scrooge on Christmas Eve. 

Point taken: We cannot sunshine and rhyme our way through convenient omissions; we can’t think that a clever feat of minority casting lets us off the hook. Compared to that, In the Heights is a less thorny project. But its difficulties — a little bloatedness; one love story that clearly outshines the other; bits of history and memory and cultural surveying that feel shoehorned into the story at times; and a cleverness, on Chu’s part, that risks feeling redundant — all seem to spring from a good place, as well as from circumstance. The movie, like the musical before it, knows who it’s for — and knows that it’s making up for a lot of lost time. It’s highest accomplishment is that it succeeds as the star vehicle Hollywood seemed to demand. Ramos, Grace, Barrera, Merediz, Diaz — the world will be hungry for more of them. And soon. 

In the Heights knows that its mere arrival means the weight of all that history and omission sits squarely on its shoulders. And even its catchiest dance numbers can’t quite shake themselves free of that weight — an onus Miranda’s musical knowing takes on, in a gesture of community like so many of the small dignities depicted in the story. That’s a lot of responsibility. In the Heights, a very entertaining movie, largely makes good on it. The best possible outcome would be a future free of any such burden to begin with.