Like a cool lemon ice on a blistering summer day, “In the Heights” feels like a reward. To moviegoers coming out of hibernation and back to the multiplex after a year-plus of lockdowns and binge TV; to fans of that most endangered species, the movie musical; to followers of Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Hamilton”; to lovers of the music of the metropolitan melting pot: salsa and soul and show tunes and hip-hop. Basically, to anyone needing a singing, dancing Technicolor pep shot after what has been a long gray drought. Sound familiar? Step right up. The piragua man is here.
The irony is that a project delivering so much undiluted delight can be rooted in such bittersweetness. Adapted and visually expanded from Miranda’s 2008 Tony Award-winning musical — the play he wrote before “Hamilton” conquered Broadway — “In the Heights” belongs to the hardy street-scene genre, where bad boys, good girls, young lovers, and old souls enact their dramas on fire escapes and brownstone stoops. But we’re in Washington Heights at the top of Manhattan in the early years of the 21st century, and in the words of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the young bodega proprietor who serves as our guide, “this is the story of a block that’s disappearing.”
The vibrant community of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans that gives the neighborhood its beating heart are being pushed out by rising rents and invaders from below 96th Street. Daniela’s beauty salon is moving to the Bronx and taking Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega of “Rent”) with it. Hopeful fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera of TV’s “Vida”) wants to move to Greenwich Village. Usnavi, who has worshiped Vanessa since grade school, wants to go back to the Dominican Republic. Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), the block’s unofficial mayor, has already sold half his taxi business to make way for an organic dry cleaner. And his daughter Nina (singer Leslie Grace) has just returned from a dismal freshman year at Stanford, terrified she can’t become the example her father wants her to be — the “one who made it out.”
All these characters — even the much-loved Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the neighborhood’s communal grandmother — are wrestling with issues of assimilation, erasure, nostalgia, and pride, and they express their concerns in songs that soar off the screen with rich wordplay and infectious grooves. As in “Hamilton,” Miranda’s lyrics fuse rap and Tin Pan Alley in ways that detonate ecstatically — Usnavi casually describing his bodega as “just another dime-a-dozen mom-and-pop stop-and-shop” can leave you gasping — and the addition of a potpourri of Latin rhythms like merengue, bachata, samba, and bomba y plena kicks “In the Heights” into an even higher gear. Miranda assembles his songs around hooks rather than melodies, and you don’t go home humming the tunes so much as savoring the riffs. The snappy beauty salon gossip-fest “No Me Diga,” the moving love song “When You’re Home,” the sweltering celebration of “Carnaval del Barrio” — all course with the lifeblood of a place and a people.
Then there’s the dancing, which isn’t edited into shards of flailing arms and kicking legs a la “Chicago” but allowed to fill the screen with full-length human bodies moving in unison, the way dance in musicals is supposed to. Director John M. Chu and choreographer Christopher Scott take advantage of the screen’s flexible canvas to populate the streets and nightclubs and community swimming pools with crowds of extras, all of whom transform from visual background noise to syncopated mass movement with a suddenness and grace that goes straight to the pleasure centers of your visual cortex. And the pas de deux between Nina and her once-and-future lover Benny (Corey Hawkins) is all the better for being allowed to escape gravity a la Fred Astaire in “Royal Wedding” and twirl right up the side of a building.
Where’s Lin-Manuel Miranda in all this? He’s the Piragua Guy, selling shaved ice confections from a pushcart and wending his way through the movie’s throng. Miranda played Usnavi in the original production of “In the Heights,” but he has ceded center stage to Ramos, who takes the character in tougher yet more endearing directions. (Christopher Jackson, who played Benny onstage and was George Washington in “Hamilton,” turns up briefly and mischievously as Mr. Softee, the Piragua Guy’s mortal enemy.) The screenplay adaptation is by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for the musical. One gets the sense of a creative band lovingly transferring a cherished possession from one medium to another.
“In the Heights” flourishes in this new setting in unexpectedly moving ways. A play that wrestled with notions of belonging and identity — Are you where you come from? Are you where you’re going? — comes to the screen at a moment when we’re all unsettled by social, technological, and viral upheavals. Miranda’s singing and dancing street scene suggests that identity is where a person or a people are right now, in their lived lives and shared memories, and from the ever-widening rings of family, community, nationality, world.
The film’s spirit embraces us out there in the dark as well. “In the Heights” is available in movie theaters and on HBO Max; the latter lets you navigate Miranda’s rapid-fire lyrics via subtitles, but the former represents an immersion not just into sound, song, vision, and verve, but the kind of joyous communal big-screen experience that has lately seemed in danger of being extinguished. In this and in so many other ways, “In the Heights” has a message for everyone, and the message is Welcome home.
IN THE HEIGHTS
Directed by John M. Chu. Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the stage musical by Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lin-Manuel Miranda. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs, and on HBO Max. 143 minutes. PG-13 (some language and suggestive references).