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Review: 'In the Heights' dreams big, from salon spectacle to bodega brio

Eric Webb
Austin 360

When I saw the trailer for “In the Heights”? Wet lil’ tear ducts. “We have got to see that,” I whispered to whoever was sitting next to me. (This was pre-pandemic; would you remember?) What was the movie about? Who were the characters singing from their chests in lavish, swirling production numbers that screamed “New York” louder than Rosie Perez reading off subway stops? 

Could not tell you. Such is the power of the movie musical.  

Now, isolation is becoming a memory, and “In the Heights” is finally in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on June 10. Having watched the movie, I can tell you a little bit more about the story. I mean, not a whole lot. It’s all spectacle and heart, which is precisely what a movie musical requires; depending on your mood, that might cover up some of your own hey-wait-a-minutes about the story. 

Even for its hiccups, “In the Heights” boldly believes in itself, and in the people whose dreams it sets out to bring to life. For that, it’s perfect. 

Dascha Polanco as Cuca, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela and Stephanie Beatriz as Carla in Warner Bros. Pictures' "In the Heights."

Based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning predecessor to “Hamilton” — Miranda produces and has a bit part in the film; Quiara Alegría Hudes pens the screenplay, as she did the Broadway musical’s book — “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu helms a journey to the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. In the proudly Dominican enclave, Usnavi (“Hamilton” young gun Anthony Ramos) runs a bodega with the help of young Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) but dreams of a return to his late parents’ homeland. It’s his “sueñito” — his little dream — and the entire neighborhood is full of those. 

Benny (Corey Hawkins) dreams of running his own business as he keeps the local cab dispatch running like a machine. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) dreams of leaving the barrio salon behind to make it big in the fashion world. Meanwhile, Nina (Leslie Grace), the pride of the neighborhood newly returned for college break, wonders if perhaps the dreams her family placed on her were a little too big. 

And, this being a musical, some combination of those people are star-crossed lovers, a different kind of dream altogether. 

"In the Heights" stars "Hamilton" performer Anthony Ramos and "Vida" star Melissa Barrera as star-crossed lovers in Washington Heights.

Threats to those dreams lurk in the most insidious clouds. There’s nothing so simple as a bad guy looming over “In the Heights.” The dream-killers are gentrification, which pushes out a deep-rooted community bit by agonizing bit; the subtle but stinging racism of the academic establishment; and the faceless terrorism of a government that sends its thugs to steal away young people from the only home they’ve ever known. 

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That might lead you to think that “In the Heights” is a depressing, fatalistic affair. Nothing could be further from the truth. Joy governs the world that Miranda, Hudes and Chu have created. To live otherwise, the film says, would be to give up, and that’s simply not an option. As Usnavi tells a group of kids about Washington Heights: “Say it so it doesn’t disappear.” 

Talk is nice, but Chu’s dazzling fairytale continues in the grand traditions of both magical realism and studio wizardry. (The man directed two films in the “Step Up” cinematic universe, so I for one am not surprised.) From the film’s opening number, a breathtaking scene-setter where key rings and water hoses are instruments, hair stylists are members of a Greek chorus and Jimmy Smits (playing Nina’s father and Benny’s boss) sings like no one’s watching, this is an extravaganzaaaaa.  

Yes, you have to hold out that vowel. Even when the story can’t quite get you there, the production numbers beat to the thrum of Usnavi and co.’s drive and desire.  

Director Jon M. Chu turns Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" into a visually dazzling, magical romance.

At the neighborhood salon, the number “No Me Diga” is a real hair-curler. The wig heads move like backup dancers to the gossipy rhythm of owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, aka the original Mimi from “Rent”) and her sidekicks Carla and Cuca (Stephanie Beatriz of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and Dascha Polanco of “Orange is the New Black,” both stealing scenes every time they so much as breathe). And the genre-blender “96,000” is a full Busby Berkeley fantasia set in the neighborhood pool. Esther Williams wished she had bars like Diaz’s Sonny.  

Chu doesn’t constrain himself to MGM-style set pieces, either. Benny and Nina dance on the side of a gleaming building. The camera opens up real streets into fantasy versions of themselves, where words fly through the air. Anything is possible, which is quite the point. 

Ramos leads a mostly all-in cast of mostly little-known actors, and it seems like his charisma and that of “In the Heights” are inextricable. Though he’s proven himself a dynamo performer — you watched “Hamilton” — that magnetism is there in the smallest of moments, like when Usnavi flirts with Vanessa through the chilly condensation of a bodega fridge door. Rubin-Vega, Hawkins and Diaz in particular seem to pick up what Ramos is putting down, forming an air-tight ensemble that you’d guess had been performing this show on Broadway for eight shows a week.  

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The problem with an existential antagonist in a big, splashy musical is that … well, the cinematic language of a big, splashy movie musical is not always the most sophisticated. And while the message of “In the Heights” is never hiding — as the barrio matriarch played by Olga Merediz says, life for the people of Washington Heights is about asserting dignity in small ways, to tell this racist, classist world that that they are not invisible — it also gets a little lost in the 143-minute-long sauce. Even the story’s centerpiece beat, a blackout that gets a suspenseful countdown, doesn’t move the plot along so much as give the characters a new mood board to play with and a handy metaphor about powerlessness.   

And because the stars are so bright here, the folks bringing up the rear stick out a little more than they should. As Vanessa, Barrera is wistful but lets Ramos’ ropes of charm fall to the floor when he tries to throw her a line — the chemistry is less pyrotechnic, more baking soda and vinegar. Grace fares a little better, but she’s too often relegated to lilting melodies sung with eyes closed. 

If “In the Heights” gets a little maudlin (hello, Lin-Manuel), it’s easy to forgive. In fact, I’ll join it: Life is big and messy, especially for those who have to persist in the face of systems not built to give them a fair shake. So, it’s no grave misstep that the very big “In the Heights” is just a little bit clumsy, even if its glossy coat over real injustice deserves a little post-screening conversation.  

Chu, Miranda and Hudes pull off a vision of the immigrant and second-generation experience that’s both fearless and utopian. Displacement and deportation move quickly and quietly, like sin often does. At the same time, there’s romance in every corner of the bodega. The tears ducts will do what they do.

'In the Heights'

Grade: B

Starring: Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV

Director: John M. Chu

Rated: PG-13 suggestive references and some language

Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes

Watch: In theaters and streaming on HBO Max on June 10