Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: Lin-Manuel Miranda has to stop casting himself in things.
Don’t get me wrong—the man can write. But as the millions of people who streamed Hamilton saw, Miranda’s acting and singing leave something to be desired. Fortunately, Miranda has only a bit part in the film adaptation of his 2007 musical In the Heights, which hit theaters and HBO Max this week.
Nearly 15 years after the show won the Tony Award for Best Musical, the songs are given new life by a talented young cast. But even for a movie musical, In the Heights occasionally dips too much into the unbelievable. The film succeeds when it stays firmly planted in reality—or, at least, a musical version of reality.
In the Heights begins with an eight-minute barnburner of the same name in which we meet the show’s narrator, Usnavi. Played by Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos, Usnavi is a young bodega owner who dreams of escaping Washington Heights for his native Dominican Republic.
We meet the film’s main characters and learn their struggles as they come into the bodega for their morning coffee, served by Usnavi and his cousin, Sonny. There’s Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and Nina (Leslie Grace) the neighborhood superstar back from Stanford.
Then there’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), the smooth-talking cab company dispatcher who works for Nina’s father. He steals the show whenever he’s on screen, rapping through New York City landmarks in "Benny’s Dispatch" or wooing Nina in the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell inspired "When You’re Home."
Unlike Hawkins, Grace often seems confused about what she’s doing. A charming actress, her voice is nonetheless too thin for Nina’s high-octane belts, which are often paired with Benny’s. Next to Hawkins, Grace almost disappears.
With that one exception, the cast is the movie’s strongpoint. Ramos is an effective narrator who, despite his obvious on-screen charm, makes you believe he is the dorky Usnavi. Jimmy Smits, who plays Nina’s father, proves that you can make it in a musical without singing too well, as long as you’re famous, cool, and a really good dancer.
All musicals require the viewer to suspend disbelief. But good musicals make that suspension as easy as possible. At its best moments, In the Heights works like a good musical.
Songs are underscored by the sounds of gates closing or hoses spraying. Big, choreographed dance numbers are built around people dancing at block parties or synchronized swimming in a public pool. Take away the dances, in other words, and this is a pretty believable story.
Ironically, it’s not the choreography but the direction of Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) that makes the film occasionally unbelievable. Usnavi steps in gum and spins a manhole cover like a cartoon turntable. Nina sings about the subway, and as she traces the line in the air with her finger, a thick, red line appears.
These surreal touches are inconsistently applied, as if Chu forgot to cut scenes from an earlier version of the movie. But more than anything, these stylized moments are unnecessary and undermine the movie’s real accomplishments.
In the Heights is a testament to the urban beauty of New York. As such, it should focus on the city’s sights and sounds, on the spray of open fire hydrants and the rumble of the 1 Train. (It’s also clear within the first minute of the movie that this isn’t a green screen or Hollywood soundstage: It’s Manhattan. The smash cuts of sidewalks, storefronts, and apartment interiors give the film a realistic edge.)
The filmmakers could’ve also focused less on the hot-button issues. Instead they dialed up the already political musical in a clear attempt to make a statement on our current immigration debate. They would have been better off letting those stories stand on their own. And yet despite all that, In the Heights couldn’t have come at a better time. With movie theaters reopening and Broadway following close behind, this joyful celebration of New York is a fitting blockbuster to start the summer.