Opening Friday in theaters, streaming for a month on HBO Max and on the bill at 6:30 p.m. June 11 at Pride Movie Nights at Oracle Park, “In the Heights” is everything a great movie musical should be.
A breathtaking sequence popping with color and set in a vast public swimming pool recalls Busby Berkeley’s swirling sequences from Depression Era musicals like “42nd Street” and “Footlight Parade.”
Just as those movies gave audiences an escape from the worries of the day, “In the Heights” comes along with perfect timing, after a long pandemic, with fears still lingering, and hope on the horizon.
Originally written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, who adapted the screenplay, the stage version of “In the Heights” arrived in 2005, a decade before Miranda’s “Hamilton.”
Unlike “Hamilton,” a precision work of interlocking, mirroring pieces, “In the Heights” simply flows, drifting through the days of a summer, wandering among characters.
Our storyteller is Usnavi (an impressive Anthony Ramos, also in the original cast of “Hamilton”), who runs a little corner store, a bodega, in Washington Heights, selling cafe con leches every morning to his neighbors.
He works with his younger cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and lives with Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, from the Broadway show), who raised him after the death of his parents.
He is in love with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in a beauty salon and dreams of being a fashion designer.
Usnavi’s best friend is Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works as a taxi dispatcher. In turn, Benny is in love with Nina (Leslie Grace), who went away to college at Stanford and has returned in defeat, having dropped out.
Nina’s experience as an outsider, away from her tribe, lies on the periphery of the story.
She tells disturbing stories of being mistaken for a maid, and being accused of stealing her white roommate’s necklace. These are non-white, Latinx characters who are forever defined by, and marginalized because of, their appearance, at least in the outside world.
In the Heights though, they have a huge support group. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone feels alive. Tempers flare, people gossip and tease one another, but there’s also love, caring and support.
Director, Jon M. Chu, best known for the smash hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” also directed music films, including some in the “Step Up” series and, ahem, two Justin Bieber documentaries.
Regardless of his track record, Chu finds the magical balance that so many recent musicals (“Rent,” “Dreamgirls,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Les Miserables,” “Into the Woods,” etc.) have failed to do.
So many directors of musicals, going all the way back to the 1950s, have relied on hugeness: the bigger and more colorful the movie, the better the chance of winning an Oscar. But the result was often pulverizing bombast, a bulldozer experience that felt more like vigorous exercise than cutting loose.
But Chu blends the moments in which humans suddenly burst into song so that they feel like a natural transition. Here, life, dancing and music flow together in big, heart-pounding rhythm.
The numbers in “In the Heights” start at seemingly any time, naturally, without obvious lead-up cues. “Carnaval del Barrio” takes place in the dead heat of day, starting with citizens drooping lazily on the concrete, and ending with a soaring song and an unrestrained, life-celebrating dance.
Some are simple, such as Benny and Nina singing and dancing through a neighborhood pick-up basketball game, or complex, like when the same pair dances on the side of a building, as if gravity suddenly shifted 90 degrees.
Abuela’s solo number, set on a subway train and in graffiti-covered tunnels, is glorious and heartbreaking, unreal and genuinely emotional, all at once.
As with “Hamilton,” many songs are laced with hip-hop, bringing a powerful, street-level gusto to the soundtrack. One great tune (“96,000”) has four of the guys walking along, rapping and playing with animated props that appear and disappear.
Though it has many themes, the main driving force of “In the Heights” is the impending end of things. As the neighborhood becomes more gentrified and more expensive, or as locals decide to get out and follow their dreams, the delicate balance is upset, and the magic begins to wane.
The movie demonstrates the real passing of time with the casting of Miranda not as Usnavi, the role he played onstage, but as the older, slightly pot-bellied Piragua (shave ice) Guy.
However, a movie this life-affirming eventually also finds room for hope, and a belief that the future can and should be better, for everyone. Perhaps most triumphantly, a little post-credits “button” — make sure to stick around — sends us away with a smile.
In the Heights
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera
Written by: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes
Note: For tickets ($25 and up) to Pride Movie Nights at Oracle Park, go to https://sfpride.org/movienight.