“In the Heights” has a script by Quiara Hudes and songs, many of them featuring rapped lyrics, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “Hamilton.” The film adaptation of the earlier show, directed by Jon Chu, is now showing in the local multiplex. Most musical fans will enjoy seeing it.
The music has lightly Latin beats and playful lyrics. The individual songs tend to run a while and are often performed by large hunks of the film’s huge cast, operating in public places. The dancing tends to be both choral and, again, large scale.
And to deal with the other concern some moviegoers may have, the story isn’t particularly political. The characters are mostly first- and second-generation emigrants from the Caribbean living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan Island, in New York City.
One character, we learn, has stayed in the U.S. without official recognition. Getting him his green card will be expensive and may be impossible, we are told. Another character wants to finish school so that she can help her undocumented Heights neighbors. That’s all there is on this subject.
One character complains that her possessions were searched when another student’s pearls were missing. Probably we are meant to understand this as an incident of racism, perhaps the only one in the film. Another young woman has bad credit and needs a co-signer for her rental agreement. But that’s about all there is about poverty.
In a nearly two-hour-and-30-minute movie, these details seem perhaps only tangentially related to the action, especially as emigrant status is an abstract concept and the rental and pearl businesses happen off-screen.
Those aren’t what the movie is about. It wants us to know that we will have to make conscious efforts to keep our particular society’s culture alive.
Probably the story does an indifferent job of showing how our ethnic habits and preferences begin to decay. But the characters are convinced this is happening. The beauty shop is moving to another borough. The cab company owner (Jimmy Smit) is selling out to get money to support his daughter’s higher education (why she doesn’t borrow the money like everyone else these days, we aren’t told).
Then, too, the story suggests a couple of other lessons but doesn’t much develop them. Family, we are told, is very important. But the lead character, Usnavi (he’s played well by likable Anthony Ramos) doesn’t seem to have any living blood relations.
He is attached to a sort of neighborhood grandmother, who dies the night of the “blackout.” On-screen titles keep telling us when the events we are seeing occurred relative to this large power failure.
The old woman is one of the dozens of lottery players in the film. This is evidence, we are told, that they all have dreams they are working toward. Oh, and just about everybody has a job of some sort.
Miranda has a featured part as a shaved ice dealer with a push cart. Pop singer Marc Anthony has a brief turn here, playing the father of Usnavi’s cousin. Our hero runs a convenience store until he can get away to some beach property he owns in the Dominican Republic, property his late father once owned.
The movie tells the story of Usnavi’s odd little romance with a manicure artist who wants to be a dress designer (Mexican actress Melissa Barrera). Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace take the other, less well-developed romance.
They get the walking-on-walls dance number, one of the special effects treats the film offers us. Hand motions become white trail lines. A subway map appears on a chain link fence. And so on. Overhead camera shots during the swimming pool sequence recall the work of Busby Berkeley. This sort of stuff helps give the show a little heft.
So “In the Heights” isn’t just froth. But what it means is, finally, just about what “Fiddler on the Roof” means: we’d better all consider how easily we allow ephemeral circumstances to change how we live.