REVIEW: “In the Heights”

There’s something special about big movie musicals. The way the music, visuals, performances, and spectacle all mesh together—there’s just nothing like it. Even when they’re bad, there’s still some joy to be found in them. In the Heights is one of those musicals that’s been begging for a film adaptation since it first debuted. It’s just so joyous and full of energy, with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (Hamilton) trademark earwormy music and a lovely, heartfelt story. It’s no wonder fans have been waiting a decade for this movie. And thankfully, after a period of development hell that saw the film pass between producers and studios, In the Heights finally has its film adaptation—directed by Jon M. Chu and written by Quiara Alegría Hudes (the musical’s original writer). And it’s good. Honestly, as a fan of the stage version, I can’t imagine how it could be much better. In the Heights is unabashedly a musical. It’s filled with breathtaking beauty, realistic characters, and so much charm. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll feel a part of a community. It’s everything I could’ve wanted and more. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

In the Heights
Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
The creator of “Hamilton” and the director of “Crazy Rich Asians” invite you to the event of the summer, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big… “In the Heights.” Lights up on Washington Heights… The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies this vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is the likable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines and sings about a better life. “In the Heights” fuses Lin-Manuel Miranda’s kinetic music and lyrics with director Jon M. Chu’s lively and authentic eye for storytelling to capture a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience.

In the Heights is one of those shows where a lot of smaller things happen, but there’s not really an overarching plot. It is the story of Washington Heights. A community filled with sueñitos—”little dreams.” Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) narrates the story, just like he does on stage. He introduces us to his cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV); Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), his love interest and hopeful fashion designer; the block’s adopted grandmother, Claudia (Olga Merediz); the salon girls, Daniella (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), and Cuca (Dascha Polanco); Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), the owner of a local taxi company, and his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace); and Benny, Nina’s ex and Kevin’s employee. 

And the whole story is just about these characters. There aren’t any major twists or big reveals. It’s all very quiet and personal. Tying everything together is a lottery that one of the characters wins and an unexpected blackout that occurs midway through the film. But otherwise, the story is about these characters’ lives and relationships. The intimacy is what makes the narrative work, and the film doesn’t forget that. Things play out mostly as they do on stage, with a few exceptions. There’s an extended framing device that is more distracting than it is clever, but I guess it’s needed to help explain why Usnavi is narrating. Nina’s mother is absent from the film, but if you don’t know she’s supposed to be there, you don’t really miss her. Six songs are cut, but I only ended up missing one of them (Kevin’s big number, “Inútil”). Otherwise, not much is different. Certain scenes get rearranged and some plot points are tweaked a bit, but the film is identifiably the same story as the musical. Which, ya know, is nice.

There is one aspect which the film greatly improves upon, though. And that’s how deeply the characters are explored. With the exception of Benny, who we’ll touch on momentarily, every character is given far more depth in the film than on stage. Usnavi and Vanessa, in particular, feel much better defined. Both characters are given more clear desires and concrete arcs. Usnavi is trying to return to the Dominican Republic while Vanessa is hoping to move downtown and become a fashion designer. And their relationship is fleshed out more, making it much easier to see why they’re into each other. Both characters are dedicated to leaving Washington Heights, but their connection with each other keeps bringing them back. It helps that Ramos and Barrera are fantastic. They both bring this beautiful mixture of joy and melancholy to their characters and they share a truly electric chemistry. 

Similarly, Usnavi’s relationship with Sonny is expanded. Just a little, though, but enough that it makes Sonny feel like a real person. He’s got a father that doesn’t seem to give a care about him, leaving Usnavi as his makeshift father figure. The two of them have this immediately believable relationship. It’s sweet and playful and real. Sonny is an undocumented immigrant, so it’s largely up to the two of them to figure all of that out. Which gives the film a very timely feeling, rooting it in these real problems facing communities like Washington Heights. It’s also interesting seeing the way that Sonny’s arc intermingles with Nina’s. In the musical, the two don’t interact all that much. Sonny has a crush on her, but it’s just one of those “teenager has a crush on the older girl” things. And that’s still true here, but there’s a deeper connection at play, with the two of them ending up influencing each other in a really satisfying way. Diaz IV is perfectly cast. He’s often the comic relief, but he’s able to play the emotional scenes with a lot of vulnerability. 

Nina ends up having a slightly more nuanced character arc, but less screen time. More time is spent on her specific reasons for being disillusioned with college, but her family dynamic isn’t explored as well. This is partially due to the decision to cut Nina’s mom, Camilla, from the film. It’s an understandable decision, given what they did with it, but I do think we end up losing a bit of Nina’s home life in the process. Still, Leslie Grace makes Nina come to life and I won’t pretend like I didn’t get a little misty-eyed when she sang “Breathe.” Benny, unfortunately, doesn’t really get any extra development. One of his big songs with Nina is cut, as is the tension between him and Kevin. Leaving him without a whole lot to do. But Corey Hawkins is just so charming and earnest that he makes Benny come alive anyway, even if the script doesn’t give him much to do.

Jimmy Smits is very underused in the film. His big song, “Inútil,” is one of the things that got cut in the stage-to-screen transition, and it kind of shows. There’s a specific scene that’s just begging for him to break out into song, and it’s disappointing when he doesn’t. Kevin’s relationship with Nina is still well-defined, though. I appreciate how vulnerable it is. Kevin puts so much onto Nina’s shoulders, far more than he probably should. It’s so clearly out of love, but it’s harming their relationship. Grace and Smits play the dynamic wonderfully. There’s such clear love there, even as they bicker. Olga Merediz is the only actress from the original Broadway cast to play the same character in the film, and it shows. Abuela Claudia has a little bit less to do in the film than she does in the stage version, but she makes such an impact. Claudia is probably the emotional centerpiece of the narrative—and the block, itself. And Merediz is just mesmerizing. Her number, “Paciencia y Fe” is breathtaking. It’s recontextualized a bit here, but it hits home. The rest of the cast do well, too, but most of them aren’t given a whole lot to do.

The characters always been the charm of In the Heights, and the film doesn’t lose sight of that. Even those with less to do, like the salon girls, are given moments to shine (“No Me Diga” is a brilliant bit of comic relief). I just love the way In the Heights tells its story. There’s spectacle in the visuals and the dancing and the music, but the story is grounded and intimate. It feels like you’re watching a slice of these characters’ lives. You get to know them. You feel their successes and their pain. You root for them. You’re invested in their lives because the story’s invited you to become invested. The whole point of the film is to watch these characters and identify with them. It’s a celebration of this community. Latinx actors playing Latinx characters just… living their lives. It’s such a unique story for a big mainstream movie musical. And there’s beauty to the simplicity and universality of the film. Watching the film is like spending a couple of hours with loved ones. 

Best of all, though—In the Heights is unashamed of being a musical. In fact, it wholly embraces it. From the minute Usnavi breaks the fourth wall and narrates to the audience during the opening song, every bit of this film feels like a love letter to the movie musicals of old. The musical numbers range from the kind of big, bombastic fantasy of Golden Hollywood musicals to the more grounded numbers we’ve seen in recent years. Jon M. Chu’s directing highlights much of this. The film was shot on location in Washington Heights, meaning the city feels truly alive. It’s almost its own character in the film, and Chu makes great use of it. Not every number is perfectly directed, but many of them are. And those are the moments that take your breath away. There’s a dance choreographed entirely in a pool that’s gorgeous to behold. There’s a moment in “No Me Diga” where some mannequin heads turn to look at the salon girls as they sing, and it’s brilliantly funny. There’s a song featuring Nina and Benny dancing on the side of a building. These are the moments you hope for in a film like this. The moments that embrace the fantasy of a musical while still rooting things in these characters. They aren’t fantasy moments for the sake of fantasy. They elevate the story and drag you further into it. 

All of it’s aided by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score, which has never sounded better than it does here. All of the different genres of music blend together to create this wholly unique output. These songs definitely sound like they were written by the same person who wrote Hamilton, and that’s the best compliment. The music is playful and the lyrics are witty but without being aware of how witty they are. I appreciated the freedom given to the actors to reinterpret some of these songs. There’s one, in particular, that jumps out to me, and that’s “Paciencia y Fe.” On stage, Abuela Claudia exclaims “Calor! Calor! Calor!” almost as though she’s cursing the heat. But here, it’s delivered as more of a whisper. Acceptance of a fate she can’t change. These changes pop up throughout the film’s score, and they honestly never failed to make me smile. It’s these little moments that breathe new life into the material and they’re wonderful. In the Heights is my favorite of Miranda’s musicals and I think the movie just highlights why the music is so good here.

Overall, I couldn’t be happier with In the Heights. Yes, it’s not identical to the stage version. But honestly, almost every change works to the movie’s benefit and I didn’t miss most of what got cut. Instead, I was easily enveloped by the world of the film. Jon M. Chu does an incredible job at inviting you into the lives of these people. You feel like you know them, like they’re your family. And it’s beautiful. It’s a simple story, but that’s what makes it effective. The script and the music bring you into this world and take you on this emotional, moving journey. The performances are incredible. The actors do an impressive job and Chu’s directing deftly helps the audience navigate the story. There’s a good chance In the Heights ends up being my favorite movie of the year. Or, at least, in my top three. This movie hit me unexpectedly hard, to be honest. I’ve missed live theatre over the past year, and getting to see this movie in a theater with other people was emotional. There’s nothing quite like the communal experience of going to see a live musical. This may not be exactly the same thing, but it’s a close substitute. So, honestly, if it’s safe enough to do so, this is a movie well seeing in theaters. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll just feel good about life. In the Heights is a must-watch. 

4.5 out of 5 wands.

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