‘In the Heights’ Review: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

“In the Heights” begins with a person — Usnavi, performed by Anthony Ramos — telling a narrative to a gaggle of kids. They are gathered on the patio of a bar on a palm-fringed, sun-kissed seashore in the Dominican Republic. The bar is known as El Sueñito, or the Little Dream, and the identify is without delay a clue, a spoiler and the key to the themes of this exuberant and heartfelt musical.

A dream is usually a fantasy or a aim, an escape or an aspiration, a rejection of the means issues are or an affirmation of what might be. “In the Heights,” tailored from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Tony-winning Broadway present, embraces all of those meanings. After greater than a 12 months of desultory streaming, anemic leisure and panicky doomscrolling, it’s a dream come true.

The director, Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) attracts on the anti-realist traditions of Hollywood song-and-dance spectacle to vault the characters (and the viewers) into exalted realms of feeling and magic. Two lovers step off a tenement fireplace escape and pirouette up and down the partitions of the constructing in a candy and thrilling defiance of gravity. A public swimming pool turns right into a Busby Berkeley kaleidoscope of kineticism and shade. The wigs on a magnificence salon shelf bounce alongside to the beat of an enormous manufacturing quantity.

At the similar time, this multistranded, intergenerational story about household, neighborhood and upward mobility is rooted in the real-world soil of exhausting work and sacrifice. The modest desires of Usnavi and his neighbors and buddies are reflections of a really large dream — the American one, which the movie celebrates with out irony even because it takes word of sure contradictions.

We are transported from the tropical tranquillity of El Sueñito to the summertime swelter of Washington Heights, a stretch of Upper Manhattan shadowed by the George Washington Bridge and illuminated by Hudson River sunsets. Its streets are a double-poled magnet. In the 20th century, immigrants from the Caribbean and different components of Latin America — together with Usnavi’s father, now useless, and the neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) — had been drawn by the promise of financial alternative. Some opened small companies, like the bodega the place Usnavi and his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) spend their days allotting café con leche, quarter waters and different staples. Across the road is a livery cab service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who got here to New York from Puerto Rico and poured his hopes into his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace). The apple of his eye and the satisfaction of the neighborhood — “the best of us,” as Kevin says — Nina is a pupil at Stanford.

She returns house for the summer season in the grip of an ambivalence that’s as a lot a fixture of the Heights as open fireplace hydrants and piragua carts. (Miranda, who originated the position of Usnavi onstage, reveals up as a vendor of these syrup-soaked hot-weather treats, a person whose nemesis is the controversial New York character Mister Softee.)

Usnavi remembers his childhood in the Dominican Republic as the greatest time of his life. For him, that island represents roots, origins, id — every part that Washington Heights is for Nina. He desires of discovering himself by returning to his father’s homeland. She is predicted to reinvent herself in a spot that Kevin, who by no means completed highschool, can scarcely think about. There could also be no place like house, however in America house is sort of by no means only one place.

Miranda and Hudes made “In the Heights” lengthy earlier than “Hamilton,” however in some methods the film model, arriving in the wake of the “Hamilton” juggernaut, works as a sequel. Like Alexander Hamilton (who Ramos performed on Broadway after Miranda stepped apart), Usnavi is an orphan and an immigrant. His neighborhood bears the identify of Hamilton’s commander in chief. And its residents plant their flags — Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican and extra — in the land of the $10 invoice. The metropolis could also be a paradise the place “the streets are made of music,” nevertheless it’s additionally a purgatory of chilly winters, deep-rooted bigotry and bureaucratic cruelty.

These issues are each the movie’s scaffolding and its topic. Miranda is, at coronary heart, a political romantic and a romantic optimist. Some viewers might need for sharper-edged explorations of points like gentrification and immigration coverage, and possibly additionally a vital perspective on household, sexuality and gender. But if Miranda is, in some methods, a revolutionary artist, he’s something however a radical. He believes in the redemptive promise and democratic potential of fashionable tradition — that means not solely commercially packaged music, motion pictures and dance but in addition streetwear types, block events and home-cooked meals — and in the supreme energy of affection.

Accordingly, “In the Heights” organizes its busy plot round parallel love tales. Usnavi is smitten with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose dream is to maneuver downtown to pursue a profession in trend. (She works in the salon owned by Daniela, who’s performed by the nice Daphne Rubin-Vega). Nina, in the meantime, remains to be candy on Benny (Corey Hawkins), her ex-boyfriend and Kevin’s trusted dispatcher. As the climate will get hotter and a blackout approaches, the two sing their means by longing, lust, disappointment and bliss — not at all times in that order however with an ardent sincerity able to melting the iciest coronary heart.

Like Usnavi, the film — bristling with concepts, verbal wit and musical invention — wears its coronary heart on its sleeve. It additionally displays his virtues: generosity, decency, exhausting work, satisfaction. Ramos’s charisma is completely suited to the position. His modesty is as successful and real as his bravado, and he’s a powerful theatrical singer in addition to a delicate movie actor. It can be unfair to the remainder of the great forged — and false to the inclusive, familial spirit that makes “In the Heights” so successful — to say he dominates the display screen. He’s the one who retains the social gathering going, and the motive it’s taking place in any respect.

It’s an ideal social gathering — replete with fireworks, dance ground blowouts, kisses, tears, loud arguments, extra kisses and extra tears. Which isn’t the similar as an ideal film. There are some useless spots in the story, and scenes, together with musical numbers, which can be sufficient when they need to be dazzling. Still, despite a longish operating time I actually didn’t need it to finish. Chu is aware of methods to present everybody a superb time. The nightclub, swimming pool and wonder store scenes are joyful and welcoming, even when, as cinema, they aren’t particularly memorable or authentic. The dynamic choreography, by Christopher Scott, is unwell served by the modifying and digital camera actions, which hack swish and athletic movement into a busy collage of faces and limbs.

One notable exception — an emotional excessive level in the movie — accompanies the tune “Paciencia y Fe,” a beautiful, piercing memory of exile and adaptation, sung by Abuela Claudia. Nearing the finish of her life, she recollects her emigration from Cuba as a younger lady in the 1940s. There is bitterness in the recollections of what adopted, alienation and hardship to go together with the persistence and religion. As she sings, dancers in flowing linen robes and head-wrappings spin and lunge in classic subway automobiles.

The tune provides mic-drop affirmation of Miranda’s virtuosity as a composer and songwriter whereas affirming his specific genius as a cultural historian. The pictures evoke each Caribbean dance traditions and midcentury choreographic modernism, simply as the music layers Latin American idioms onto a sturdy show-tune infrastructure. The synthesis is a revelation partly as a result of it uncovers crosscurrents and influences which have at all times been there, even when they weren’t at all times acknowledged or expressed in fairly this fashion.

And “In the Heights,” which opened on Broadway in 2008 and was imagined to arrive in film theaters final 12 months, feels as of the second as a freshly scraped piragua on a broiling July day and as everlasting as the girders of the George Washington Bridge. It’s a bit of mainstream American leisure in the greatest sense — an assertion of impatience and religion, a celebration of communal ties and particular person gumption, an affidavit to the energy of artwork to show struggles into the stuff of desires.

In the Heights
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 23 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max.