‘In the Heights’ Review: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

“In the Heights” begins with a man — Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos — telling a story to a group of children. They are gathered on the patio of a bar on a palm-fringed, sun-kissed beach in the Dominican Republic. The bar is called El Sueñito, or the Little Dream, and the name is at once a clue, a spoiler and the key to the themes of this exuberant and heartfelt musical.

A dream can be a fantasy or a goal, an escape or an aspiration, a rejection of the way things are or an affirmation of what could be. “In the Heights,” adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Tony-winning Broadway show, embraces all of these meanings. After more than a year of desultory streaming, anemic entertainment and panicky doomscrolling, it’s a dream come true.

The director, Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), draws on the anti-realist traditions of Hollywood song-and-dance spectacle to vault the characters (and the audience) into exalted realms of feeling and magic. Two lovers step off a tenement fire escape and pirouette up and down the walls of the building in a sweet and thrilling defiance of gravity. A public swimming pool turns into a Busby Berkeley kaleidoscope of kineticism and color. The wigs on a beauty salon shelf bounce along to the beat of a big production number.

At the same time, this multistranded, intergenerational story about family, community and upward mobility is rooted in the real-world soil of hard work and sacrifice. The modest dreams of Usnavi and his neighbors and friends are reflections of a very big dream — the American one, which the film celebrates without irony even as it takes note of certain contradictions.

We are transported from the tropical tranquillity of El Sueñito to the summertime swelter of Washington Heights, a stretch of Upper Manhattan shadowed by the George Washington Bridge and illuminated by Hudson River sunsets. Its streets are a double-poled magnet. In the 20th century, immigrants from the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America — including Usnavi’s father, now dead, and the neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) — were drawn by the promise of economic opportunity. Some opened small businesses, like the bodega where Usnavi and his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) spend their days dispensing café con leche, quarter waters and other staples. Across the street is a livery cab service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who came to New York from Puerto Rico and poured his hopes into his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace). The apple of his eye and the pride of the neighborhood — “the best of us,” as Kevin says — Nina is a student at Stanford.

She returns home for the summer in the grip of an ambivalence that is as much a fixture of the Heights as open fire hydrants and piragua carts. (Miranda, who originated the role of Usnavi onstage, shows up as a vendor of those syrup-soaked hot-weather treats, a man whose nemesis is the controversial New York character Mister Softee.)

Usnavi remembers his childhood in the Dominican Republic as the best time of his life. For him, that island represents roots, origins, identity — everything that Washington Heights is for Nina. He dreams of finding himself by returning to his father’s homeland. She is expected to reinvent herself in a place that Kevin, who never finished high school, can scarcely imagine. There may be no place like home, but in America home is almost never just one place.

Miranda and Hudes made “In the Heights” long before “Hamilton,” but in some ways the movie version, arriving in the wake of the “Hamilton” juggernaut, works as a sequel. Like Alexander Hamilton, Usnavi is an orphan and an immigrant. His neighborhood bears the name of Hamilton’s commander in chief. And its residents plant their flags — Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican and more — in the land of the $10 bill. The city may be a paradise where “the streets are made of music,” but it’s also a purgatory of cold winters, deep-rooted bigotry and bureaucratic cruelty.

These complications are both the film’s scaffolding and its subject. Miranda is, at heart, a political romantic and a romantic optimist. Some viewers may wish for sharper-edged explorations of issues like gentrification and immigration policy, and maybe also a critical perspective on family, sexuality and gender. But if Miranda is, in some ways, a revolutionary artist, he is anything but a radical. He believes in the redemptive promise and democratic potential of popular culture — meaning not only commercially packaged music, movies and dance but also streetwear styles, block parties and home-cooked meals — and in the supreme power of love.

Accordingly, “In the Heights” organizes its busy plot around parallel love stories. Usnavi is smitten with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose dream is to move downtown to pursue a career in fashion. (She works in the salon owned by Daniela, who is played by the great Daphne Rubin-Vega.) Nina, meanwhile, is still sweet on Benny (Corey Hawkins), her ex-boyfriend and Kevin’s trusted dispatcher. As the weather gets hotter and a blackout approaches, the two couples sing their way through longing, lust, disappointment and bliss — not always in that order but with an ardent sincerity capable of melting the iciest heart.

Like Usnavi, the movie — bristling with ideas, verbal wit and musical invention — wears its heart on its sleeve. It also reflects his virtues: generosity, decency, hard work, pride. Ramos’s charisma is perfectly suited to the role. His modesty is as winning and genuine as his bravado, and he’s a strong theatrical singer as well as a subtle film actor. It would be unfair to the rest of the wonderful cast — and false to the inclusive, familial spirit that makes “In the Heights” so winning — to say he dominates the screen. He’s the one who keeps the party going, and the reason it’s happening at all.

It’s a great party — replete with fireworks, dance floor blowouts, kisses, tears, loud arguments, more kisses and more tears. Which isn’t the same as a great movie. There are some dead spots in the story, and scenes, including musical numbers, that are adequate when they should be dazzling. Still, in spite of a longish running time I really didn’t want it to end. Chu knows how to show everyone a good time. The nightclub, swimming pool and beauty shop scenes are joyful and welcoming, even if, as cinema, they aren’t especially memorable or original. The dynamic choreography, by Christopher Scott, is ill served by the editing and camera movements, which hack graceful and athletic motion into a hectic collage of faces and limbs.

One notable exception — an emotional high point in the film — accompanies the song “Paciencia y Fe,” a lovely, piercing reminiscence of exile and adaptation, sung by Abuela Claudia. Nearing the end of her life, she recalls her emigration from Cuba as a young girl in the 1940s. There is bitterness in the memories of what followed, alienation and hardship to go along with the patience and faith. As she sings, dancers in flowing linen robes and head-wrappings spin and lunge in vintage subway cars.

The song offers mic-drop confirmation of Miranda’s virtuosity as a composer and songwriter while affirming his particular genius as a cultural historian. The images evoke both Caribbean dance traditions and midcentury choreographic modernism, just as the music layers Latin American idioms onto a sturdy show-tune infrastructure. The synthesis is a revelation partly because it uncovers crosscurrents and influences that have always been there, even if they weren’t always recognized or expressed in quite this way.

And “In the Heights,” which opened on Broadway in 2008 and was supposed to arrive in movie theaters last year, feels as of the moment as a freshly scraped piragua on a broiling July day and as permanent as the girders of the George Washington Bridge. It’s a piece of mainstream American entertainment in the best sense — an assertion of impatience and faith, a celebration of communal ties and individual gumption, a testimony to the power of art to turn struggles into the stuff of dreams.

In the Heights
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 23 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max.

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