It’s well established that translating a stage musical to the screen is not easy (remember Cats?!). If it’s not a filmed concert version of the stage show (see: Hamilton streaming on Disney+), the adaptation to a medium like film can often flummox creatives, from failing to make the necessary story adjustments to missing the mark on casting and on and on. There are so many ways these adaptations can go wrong that it’s a form of sweet relief when a production like In the Heights, from powerhouse producer Lin-Manuel Miranda (again, see: Hamilton), only seems to do so in minor, ultimately forgivable ways. Directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) with a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the book for Miranda’s stage version as well), the Tony Award-winning musical becomes a sweeping, colorful musical event perfect for a celebratory return to summer movie blockbusters.
In the Heights premiered on Broadway in 2008 with Miranda in the lead role of Usnavi, an ambitious and well-liked bodega owner in the tight-knit, mostly Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. With big dreams of leaving the concrete jungle for his ancestral home of the Dominican Republic, he spends his days pining for a local girl, Vanessa, and dreaming up ways to afford his move back to the island. Meanwhile, local girl-made-good Nina returns home after a year at Stanford, unsure of how she and her father, who owns a car service in the neighborhood, will be able to afford the rest of her Stanford education. Usnavi lives with Abuela Claudia, an elder in the community who, since she never had children of her own, adopted all of the neighborhood kids as her own. There’s a whole slate of additional characters filling in Usnavi’s vibrant neighborhood, from his cousin Sonny who works at the bodega with him to salon owner Daniela who’s finally had enough of the encroaching gentrification and is moving her shop out of the neighborhood.
In this film version, the wise choice has been made, despite Miranda’s meteoric rise to fame (nearly to the point of oversaturation, honestly), to recast the lead role with an actor familiar to Hamilton-ites everywhere, Anthony Ramos (who played John Laurens/Philip Hamilton in that production). This one is a star in the making, exuding so much charm and personality as Usnavi that the film’s weakest moments, like a shoe-horned narrative device that gives Usnavi a chance to tell some kids (and us) how this story is to unfold, are relatively painless if endlessly awkward. Ramos’s ease on screen is undeniable and magnetic, a fact audiences only caught a glimpse of during his brief supporting turn in 2018’s A Star is Born. As the center of this nearly two and a half hour musical marathon (though yes, the story does begin to drag toward the end), he’s a joy to spend the time with and it’s about time the world realize it once and for all.
But I digress.
Ramos is surrounded by a star-studded cast, from supporting players Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn 99), Dascha Palanco (Orange is the New Black) to legends like Jimmy Smits and Daphne Rubin Vega (the original Broadway cast of Rent) to cheeky cameos from the likes of Chris Jackson (George Washington in Hamilton), Marc Anthony (with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene) and even Miranda himself as the neighborhood “piragua guy.” Relative newcomers Leslie Grace (Nina) and Melissa Barrera (Vanessa) more than hold their own among all these powerhouses, as does Corey Hawkins as Benny, Usnavi’s best friend and Nina’s ex. It’s a packed house, but it’s one full of talent, beauty and impressive screen presence, all of whom more than fill the film’s most expansive ensemble numbers.
And there are a lot of those for Chu to figure out what to do with. Several of the film’s biggest numbers are impressively dynamic, filled with energetic choreography and expansive staging, the stuff that big screen movies are made for. But then again, several sadly feel more like a filmmaker trying to get creative just for the sake of getting creative, like an over-edited, head-spinning community pool number where I’m fairly certain Ramos is (very badly) edited over a green screen in order to apparently be added to the scene after the fact. Or an inexplicably complicated Act II duet between Nina and Benny that is so bogged down by its own special effects that you might just forget to pay attention to what they’re singing about. I know I did. None of it is enough to write the film off entirely; far from it. But it does keep it from being something transcendent, a fact all the more disappointing because it otherwise comes so close to being just that.
The narrative arc of In the Heights centers around a blackout in the middle of an oppressive summer heatwave, an infrastructure failure that quickly goes from an inconvenience to a life-threatening danger. The many lives that intersect in the bustling neighborhood all seem to be on paths careening towards each other, whether they can see it coming or not, and by the film’s final third, their individual and collective resolutions are more than clear to anyone who’s been paying attention up until now. That in itself isn’t an issue at all; what is more problematic is that Chu seems to run out of steam by the time things are winding down, making the film’s last half hour or so feel like more of a slog than it has any right to. Had he managed to keep up the pulsing, kinetic beat of the film’s promising start, it all might’ve wrapped up with much more of a bang than a whimper.
In the end, Miranda, Chu and their massive (and massively talented) cast prove one thing for certain: the era of the big studio movie musical is alive and well, and even if In the Heights doesn’t quite reliably reach majestic ones of its own, we’re lucky they’re still making them like this at all.
In the Heights opens in theaters, including the Music Box Theatre, and streaming on HBO Max on Thursday, June 10.
Third Coast Review is one of 43 local independent media that are members of the Chicago Independent Media Alliance. You can help #savechicagomedia by donating to our 2021 campaign. Support every outlet or select your favorites to receive your support. Thank you!