“Good things come to those who wait,” they say, and Jon M. Chu’s upcoming movie adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical In the Heights arrives just in time to prove the adage right.
The film, whose release was delayed nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, takes the work that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the path to superstardom and turns it into an impeccably crafted, rousing celebration of the possibilities of life in America. Puritans may decry some of the pieces from the bulky musical original left on the cutting room floor, but the stage version is sufficiently unknown (at least compared to Lin-Manuel’s colossal Hamilton) that it should be perceived as refreshing to enough audiences.
The film, as its name implies, is set in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, where a multicultural amalgam of various (mostly Latinx) diasporas coexist, at times at ease, at times with soft tension. The Latinx experience in America is complicated and cannot be reduced to single nationality, or even ethnicity. One of the most beautiful things about In the Heights is that even though it centers on Dominican Usnavi de la Vega (in the film, a dedicated Anthony Ramos), its thoughtful approach is far-embracing and allows for many other Latin cultures to showcase at least tidbits.
Although In the Heights focuses mostly on Usnavi (which, under lore, became a common Dominican name when locals saw U.S. Navy ships at their docks), the picture, like the musical, is most successful due to its big tent umbrella coverage of the cast of characters who surround him. Usnavi owns a local bodega that he is struggling to stay afloat. Nina Rosario (the powerful Leslie Grace), meanwhile, returns home from her first semester at Stanford, hiding a secret that appears to revolve around her struggle for acceptance in the school. Benny (Corey Hawkins), Usnavi’s best friend and confidante, has a crush on Nina, while Usnavi himself is more into Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an employee at the local salon run by Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Many of them were raised by the other key character to round out the top cast, Cuban-descent Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz). It is the hottest day of a hot New York City summer, headed for the chaos of a blackout.
Through this rich array of characters, screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes is able to weave a rich tapestry of the American experience from the perspective of just one little “barrio.” Nina’s struggle to be accepted by her white classmates, her financial challenges, and the burden that comes with being the first of your family to go to college, are all keystone components of the Latinx experience in the United States. So too are Usnavi’s devotion to his work and his fight to keep a business afloat; the critical matriarch role that the “Abuela” (grandmother) plays in Latin communities—especially as a critically link to the past; and the salon setting that represents the collaborative, fulfilling, and at times uneasy coexistence of different Latinx cultures among white cultures and as between ourselves. In the Heights, like its source material, is a beautiful picture because it is both proud to showcase these worthy complexities as well as unafraid to gently prod our own shortcomings as a class of American immigrants.
In a sense, it’s almost like the natural sequel to Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, which, through comedic devices, told a similar story of uneasy assimilations that occur in fits and starts, while showcasing to those who have been here for longer generations why these cultures are worth accepting. This approach is not new—this century alone started with Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding—but it is a quintessential American story if done correctly, as In the Heights is. If a smile cannot take over your face at the sight of all the eccentricities and superstitions that Latinx people carry, I’d have a few choice words, but in any event, this film is not for you.
It helps immensely that In the Heights is expertly crafted, such that while its many, younger, less-seasoned actors can be permitted to take over with ease. Most notable is Myron Kerstein’s tight editing of the many, stirring musical numbers. His job in particular was likely not an easy one, as the source material easily lends itself for a 3+ runtime that is untenable in film these days and that nevertheless resulted in a hefty 150 minutes. The music, of course, including adaptations and actualizations, are courtesy of Lin-Manuel himself, while Alice Brooks’ cinematography shines for permitting the always-sunny mood in the streets of Washington Heights not to shine so bright that the audience could get sun glare. One or two narrative tricks—most notably, opening the entire proceedings with a shot of Usvani on a beach (a stark deviation from the original)—are of questionable value, and the youth of some of the wonderfully diverse cast shows through at times.
At others, though, their boundless talent also is on full display. Perhaps ironically, Mr. Ramos, the most seasoned of them all, leaves the least memorable trace of all. It is Ms. Merediz as Abuela Claudia that steals the show with the signature song “Paciencia y Fe,” the film’s heart and soul—both figuratively and literally as it lives at its narrative center. That piece alone will leave her squarely in the awards conversation for the rest of the year. Singer-turned-actress Leslie Grace also does a lot with the difficult role of the conflicted Nina, and Ms. Barrera also knocks her own musical numbers, particularly “It Won’t be Long Now,” out of the park.
All told, In the Heights, a true ensemble picture, is one of the best adaptations of a Broadway musical to hit the big screen, arguably since Tom Hopper’s Les Miserables nearly ten years ago. Perhaps it helps that its topics of immigration and assimilation are timely. Perhaps it helps that its songs, choreography, and story have already become timeless. Or perhaps it helps that we have waited so long to laugh and smile again, that all we needed was this little “paciencia y fe” to do it.
In the Heights will open theatrically and on HBO Max on June 11. All photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.