Summer is upon us. Audiences and press are being herded into theaters. All the same, we’re at an “absence of exultation,” as essayist Adam Gopnik recently put it. Nobody’s ready to jump for joy.
Hollywood didn’t get the memo. A romantic film without the sap, “In the Heights,” directed by Jon Chu, isn’t waiting around for everyone to get back in the swing of things. Hope and happiness are at its fingertips and, like us, it’s been sitting around for a year. Why hold back? Adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ musical of the same name, the film implores us to follow it into summer. Have that dinner party (or wade in with a picnic), shoot your shot, seize the moment, because the world is spinning again.
In the Heights, the world is never still. The Washington Heights-set musical is sweltering in a July heat wave that, after three days, culminates in a blackout. We’re dunked into the block with composer Miranda’s electrifying opening number, as Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), owner of the barrio’s corner bodega, taps down his steps, then latches his gate and walks past a man spraying a hose, both to the beat — and then spins a manhole cover like a turntable.
Does this scenario sound a bit far-fetched? Unbelievable? “In the Heights” makes that all too easy to forget, because if there’s one thing the film understands, it’s the lose-yourself appeal of a great Hollywood musical.
That unforgettable, boundless opening number also introduces most of the film’s major players. Among them are Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, irresistibly loving), who effectively adopts the neighborhood; the gossipy “salon ladies,” principally the salon’s indomitable owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega); and Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, adorable).
Yet, “In the Heights” is as much about representation, emotion, escapism and, most importantly, a thumping experience as it is about its characters, all of which slide across the screen in very watchable scenes. The crux tying the seat-shaking, screen-filling spectacle together: Everyone has a suenito, a dream.
That crux is the film at the top of its game. “Everybody’s got a job, everybody’s got a dream,” Usnavi sings in the opening number; the realities in this barrio fall short of its many American dreams. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who has a timid romance with Usnavi, is eyeing a midtown studio and a career as a fashion designer but is held back by a credit check. The soaring cost of Nina Rosario’s (Leslie Grace) Stanford education forces her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), to sell the family’s car dispatch piecemeal, threatening Benny’s (Corey Hawkins) — himself smitten by Nina — job security. Gentrification prices Daniela and her salon out of the Heights.
An extraordinarily well-studied and executed studio production, “In the Heights” makes clear that the myth classical-era Hollywood musicals peddled only acknowledged one slice of America. So, it makes its own way. It endorses the American dream by both internalizing and vindicating “paciencia y fe” (patience and faith), the aphorism that Abuela Claudia glues the barrio together with.
Energetic blends of rap, hip-hop, salsa and Latin pop — occasionally let down by a mixed bag of editing and cinematography — elegantly turn a genre against its own ignorance and erasure. Characters are co-opted for an affirmation of faith in community, not a blind or naive allegiance to dreams. And while many of the extras filling in the background are egregiously attractive, “In the Heights” itself is just self-conscious enough not to be odiously hot, but is still — almost rudely — sexy.
It’s true: The film’s sunny disposition won’t sit right with some viewers. A woman in her police uniform is less than radical, while the film’s exploration of sexuality and gender is poor, even distasteful. But more than anything, “In the Heights” is about family, neighbors and community. The perfect musical is still on the way, but we can make an allowance for the sake of this new, hopelessly dreamy summer classic. “In the Heights” understands itself so thoroughly, its formula so winning, the status quo is born anew.
Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].