Before “Hamilton,” there was “In the Heights,” the revolutionary Tony-winning hip-hop musical that put Lin-Manuel Miranda — and the northern tip of Manhattan — on Broadway’s map. Though just 20 minutes from the Great White Way by train, the predominantly Dominican neighborhood might as well have been the North Pole for most New Yorkers (“I’ve never been above 96th Street,” squeals a lost hipster in the first number) until their eyes were opened by Miranda’s electrifying show, which follows a cluster of first-generation immigrants from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the D.R. over several scorching summer days in the way-uptown barrio.
Now, thanks to this eye-popping big-screen adaptation from “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu, the rest of the country can join in the festivities, a come-one-come-all block party in honor of the Latino immigrant experience. “In the Heights” was always an upbeat and joyful show, as well as an inspiration in the representation department: It featured Latinos playing Latinos, singing in intricate, rapid-fire rhymes peppered with Spanish expressions and references to Caribbean culture — the food, the fashion and above all, the music.
Miranda’s writing made the grease-painted, switchblade-wielding street gangs of “West Side Story” seem a hundred years old by comparison, even if his style has since influenced so much that it feels almost quaint today (“In the Heights” was workshopped in 2005, bowed Off Broadway in 2007, then moved to Broadway the following year). The musical made history, offering a fresh spin on the Hispanic experience simply by focusing on relatable everyday struggles, rather than run-ins with the law, la migra and other clichés of how the Latino community is so often depicted by Anglo storytellers.
Like its source, the movie is a blast, one that benefits enormously from being shot on the streets of Washington Heights. From the bodega belonging to Dominican American narrator Usnavi (the role Miranda originated, played here by “Hamilton” veteran Anthony Ramos with a wide smile) to parks, pools and other public spaces, “In the Heights” now situates audiences in the actual Heights, which had to be cheated with 2D storefronts framing a view of the George Washington Bridge onstage.
Chu (who directed the first two “Step Up” sequels) is right not to make the show “gritty” — it’s not, and neither is the neighborhood — though many of his choices skew the film toward a younger audience. He goes for a slightly dated, Disney Channel vibe, complete with flash-mob dance numbers, contrived-looking lens flares and an awkward framing device in which Usnavi sits on a white-sand beach and tells the story in the past tense to a gaggle of wide-eyed kids.
This is Chu’s way of addressing the false dilemma every contemporary musical director has struggled with: How to explain why characters are singing? His solution involves treating the material as a children’s fable, though it probably would have worked just as well (if not better) to dive straight into the first song’s “Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day” opening line. It’s a shame two decades after “Chicago” that Hollywood still seems ashamed to treat tuners as tuners, though that’s a quibble, since the movie is so much more committed to the genre than most — it has to be, considering that most of the plot is packed into Miranda’s lyrics, which come fast and furious for more than two hours.
As Usnavi opens his shop — addressing the camera like someone out of a Spike Lee movie — the characters pour in: There’s his honorary abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, a Tony nominee from the original Broadway cast and the movie’s most likely Oscar contender); cousin Sonny (scene-stealer Gregory Diaz IV); local car service owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits); star-crossed college girl Nina (Leslie Grace) and ex-boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works at her dad’s dispatch; and Usnavi’s own crush, budding fashionista Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Half of them buy lottery tickets, and before long, Usnavi learns that he’s sold a winner, prompting the show’s best (and most “Hamilton”-sounding) number, “96,000,” in which the ensemble imagines what they’d do with that kind of money.
On Broadway, we soon learned who bought the lucky ticket, but Quiara Alegría Hudes (who adapted her own stage book) delays that information here to no real advantage. She and Chu don’t change much about the source material, though their few tweaks reduce what little conflict there was to begin with. For example, where Benny once sang of Nina’s father, “He loves to remind me that I’ll never be good enough for your family,” no such tension exists here. Now that she’s back from Stanford, there’s really nothing keeping them apart.
Usnavi and Vanessa’s relationship is a bit more complicated, since both are angling to get out of the Heights: She paints nails at a salon but dreams of moving downtown to become a fashion designer, while he wants to return to the Dominican Republic to restore his father’s bar. But even then, the movie smooths over their misunderstandings, as in the lively club scene — a fireworks display of Latin courtship and dancing that immediately precedes the citywide blackout — where the potential couple make one another jealous by dancing with strangers. As a “Step Up” vet, Chu ought to get the underlying dynamic, though there’s enough going on in this number to propel the musical’s second half.
Just as Searchlight indie “Brooklyn” did for Irish characters a few years back, “In the Heights” acknowledges the nagging connection that tugs many immigrants back to their homeland, reminding how assembling an adoptive family can make adjusting to a new place more manageable. In this vibrant community portrait, some are coming while others go: Nina drops out of Stanford to be among her people, whereas beauty shop owner Daniela (“Rent” star Daphne Rubin-Vega) is forced out by gentrification and rising rent prices.
“It’s gotten mad expensive,” sings Usnavi, but that’s only the half of it. In scene after scene, “In the Heights” acknowledges how hard immigrants must work for their place in this country, celebrating those aspects of their culture — the hair and nails, the ropa vieja and flan — that they refuse to let go, even as the system pressures them to assimilate.
Chu may not be Latin, but he’s clearly sensitive to such themes, and one suspects that Miranda (who appears as the piragua guy, pushing his shaved ice cart throughout) may have tipped him off to the kind of details that reflect the neighborhood: the graffiti, the old men on their stoops, the kids splashing in the fountain of open fire hydrants.
Those touches are true enough, though it would have been nice to see the helmer commit to the expressionistic potential of the genre. He does have a few tricks up his sleeve — like the one where Benny and Nina turn a tenement building on its side and dance across the walls — though Chu generally favors quick-cut, put-the-camera-anywhere music video-style staging. Seeing Dominicans and Puerto Ricans take to the streets may not be as novel now as it was when “In the Heights” hit Broadway, but it’s no less invigorating on the big screen. Miranda’s terrific songs speak for themselves, leaving Chu to orchestrate the carnaval del barrio that does justice to everyday people of color. Holler!