Years before Lin-Manuel Miranda cemented his place in the pantheon of musical theater by creating an unlikely sensation with the adaptation of a weighty historical biography, he worked with playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes to tell a story that took place closer to home. Set in a Brooklyn neighborhood that Miranda knows wells, In the Heights made its Broadway debut in 2008 and went on to win a handful of Tonys, including Best Musical and, for Miranda, Best Original Score. More than ten years later, and after a necessary COVID-prompted further delay, In the Heights has been put to film.
Reconfigured and expanded in wise ways (Hudes returns to craft the screenplay), the film version of In the Heights is still concentrated on three sweltering days in a bustling community that feels small and tight-knit despite being part of the biggest city in the nation. in Miranda’s usual manner, the musical is densely packed. A hefty array of characters deal with interpersonal challenges, big and small, usually while singing through the particulars in hip hop–inflected show tunes. The cast is mostly assembled from relative newcomers, all of whom are appealing without ever quite breaking through with distinctive, memorable performances. Anthony Ramos, a veteran of the original run on Hamilton, takes on the lead role originated by Miranda on stage (for his part, the author graciously, and necessarily, downgrades himself to Piragüero, the Piragua Guy) and acquits himself well enough. Only Jimmy Smits, leaning on old-pro charm as a businessman father sacrificing what he’s built to give him daughter (Leslie Grace) a chance at a good education, brings extra levels to his role.
In the Heights works as a film — and it definitely works — because it’s strong source material made stronger in cinematic staging. Director John M. Chu takes every moment as a challenge, pressing himself to find ways to make scenes soar in a way that would have been nearly impossible on stage. Sometimes that approach means wholeheartedly embracing the panache of old movie musicals, as with the new-for-the-screen number “96,000,” which evokes the pruny-fingered handiwork of Busby Berkeley. More often, that means finessing the cinematic imagery in striking, dynamic ways, up to and including the defiance of gravity itself.
In its themes — of gentrification, of cultural heritage, of the families built apart from bloodlines — In the Heights is movingly, atypically sincere. There’s nothing particularly novel or innovative about the storytelling beats it moves to. There doesn’t need to be. There is instead conviction, a certainty that the heart and earnestness that underlies every line and every lyric is enough to knock aside cynicism. Chu mirrors that fundamental trait in his directorial approach. He admirably refuses to shy away from the artifice of the musical. That allows the film to be fully invigorated by the razzle-dazzle showmanship of it all, forging a pact with the audience that if they open themselves up to the magic, it will be worth their while. The tactic has rarely been employed so well since the years when Gene Kelly bounded across the screen with athletic pleasure. This shot wasn’t thrown away either.