Before “Hamilton” became a national phenomenon, Lin-Manuel Miranda made his mark on Broadway by writing and starring in “In the Heights.” The Tony award-winning musical celebrating the Washington Heights section of New York City and its thriving Latino community ran from 2008 to 2011 on the Great White Way.
When I saw the show in August 2008, it was just a few months into its run. The show’s energy and joy were infectious. Little did I know I’d be reviewing the film adaptation 13 years later.
After being delayed a year by the pandemic, “In the Heights” finally comes to glorious life on the big screen. In theaters and streaming on HBO Max, the powerful and vibrant film heralds the return of the larger-than-life movie musical, spotlighting a diverse cast. With its timely story, dynamic directing, show-stopping tunes, high-energy dance numbers and fantastic ensemble, “In the Heights” makes a nearly flawless transition from stage to screen.
The sweeping musical follows the neighborhood of largely Dominican immigrants as they search for the American dream. Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs the store with the help of his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), yearns to return to the Dominican Republic. Usnavi is too nervous to ask out Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a stylist who aspires to become a fashion designer. Meanwhile, intelligent student Nina (Leslie Grace) – the pride of the neighborhood – returns from her freshman year at Stanford University after feeling excluded due to her heritage. Nina is reunited with her ex-boyfriend, Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works for her father’s (Jimmy Smits) dispatch business. When a $96,000-winning lottery ticket promises to put some dreams closer in reach, others’ dreams threaten to fade away. As the summer heat rises and a blackout hits, the future of the Heights and its residents grows more uncertain.
“In The Heights” comes out at a relevant time as the issue of immigration remains in the national consciousness. The musical has been updated to reflect key events that occurred during the 13-year gap since its Broadway debut. The film adds a compelling subplot about the Dreamers and the DACA act, which affects the immigration status of one of the main characters. There’s also references to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the Dominican Republic, and even pop culture references to “John Wick” and “Hamilton,” if you’re listening closely.
Visually stunning, “In the Heights” dazzles the senses as director John M. Chu brings a cinematic scope to the story. Without the limitations of the Broadway stage, the film adaptation excels at interweaving the story’s various settings, from the bodega to the sun-soaked streets to neighborhood grandmother Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) apartment. During the rollicking opening number “In the Heights,” the camera rests on several characters as they buy lottery tickets at the bodega, then weaves seamlessly between Usnavi, Sonny and Benny among the aisles, catching their reflections in the cooler’s windows as Vanessa walks in. Cho sprinkles creative shots like this throughout the film.
The kinetic direction matches the rhythm of the music, enhancing the exuberance of the songs and the breathless choreography. Nina is welcomed home by the ladies at Daniela’s (Daphne Rubin-Vega) neighborhood salon in the catchy “No Me Diga,” a delightful group number that sees the women busting out moves around the hair dryers and wigs. As the film plays up the mystery of who holds the winning lottery ticket, the cast unites at the local pool to sing the rousing “96,000.” In this eye-popping, candy-colored sequence, each character reveals what they’d do with the winnings, their hopes and dreams laid bare as they perform synchronized routines in and around the pool. Merediz, who reprises her role as Abuela Claudia from the stage show, belts her heart out during the introspective “Paciencia Y Fe.” The heartfelt number forms the story’s emotional center.
With its large, inclusive cast, “In the Heights” features an extraordinary ensemble whose voices complement one another. Taking over the role of Usnavi that Miranda originated onstage, the charismatic Ramos conveys a youthful enthusiasm paired with a wistful longing for the home he once knew. His “el suenito” – little dream – contrasts nicely with that of Vanessa, played magnificently by the vivacious Barrera. Vanessa longs to move also, but to another part of town and a better job. Ramos and Barrera share a sweet spark onscreen.
Ramos and Barrera aren’t the only standouts. Grace knocks it out of the park as the conflicted Nina, longing to find her place among the lack of a Latino community at Stanford. The pop singer’s soft, gentle voice radiates sadness and uncertainty as she tries to calm herself during “Breathe,” but pivots to hope and optimism during the duet “When the Sun Goes Down” with Hawkins’ loyal Benny.
The would-be couple’s sequence utilizes magical realism as the two dance together on the side of a building. The whimsical technique is used sparingly throughout the movie, and it works very well. However, I would have liked to see the film lean even more into magical realism.
When “In The Heights” digs its heels deeper into the social issues and dilemmas facing its characters, the film slows down during its final hour. It’s a rare lapse of action for the two-and-a-half-hour musical before the triumphant “Carnaval Del Barrio” gets the ball rolling again. It’s a nitpick during what is otherwise Chu and Miranda’s masterpiece.
Full of stirring songs and boisterous dance numbers, “In the Heights” does justice to the Broadway show, treating viewers to an immersive and joyous big-screen experience. Despite being delayed a year due to the pandemic, the film is emerging at the right time as viewers have been deprived of going to Broadway and even the movie theater for months. For me, the film brought back enjoyable memories of seeing the original show onstage. Whether you watch it at home or in the theater, “In the Heights” ushers in a grand return to form for movie musicals.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Last year, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenon “Hamilton” was released on Disney Plus. Everyone had the opportunity to see the filmed version of the stage musical after Broadway shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Without COVID-19, audiences would have seen the film adaptation of one of Miranda’s earlier musicals, “In the Heights,” around that time. Instead, movie-goers waited a year for Warner Bros. to release it. Finally, it hit theaters and HBO Max on Friday and proved one of the best films of the year.
The film perfectly brings the audience into the culture of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in New York City (aka Nueva York). The opening “In the Heights” number establishes the tone and tells the viewers what they need to know about the neighborhood. This upbeat showstopper hooks the audience immediately and establishes the film’s magical realism and the pulse of the neighborhood, including its residents’ ability to find joy and strength in difficult times. The musical number “96,000” strengthens the heart and audience’s understanding of the neighborhood and its undying hope. It’s also the most memorable sequence as it combines magical realism with some incredible camera work and choreography on a large scale.
Although it gives many characters plenty of time to shine, “In the Heights” centers on Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and his dream to return to the Dominican Republic to reclaim the best days of his life. After serving as side characters in “Hamilton,” Ramos takes centerstage and crushes the lead role. He puts his talent on full display and it all seems effortless. Ramos has a natural feel for the role and the film, which makes his acting seem so real. He also beautifully handles emotional sequences.
Normally I’d say Ramos won the film, but “In the Heights” shares the screen time among multiple engaging characters. Melissa Barrera (Vanessa) establishes herself as a force on the big screen with a booming voice and incredible dancing. The film also gives the character substance and a reason for the audience to care. Vanessa works to make it in the fashion design world, a career path that seems difficult to achieve with her status. However, she won’t allow that to stop her drive as she hammers home with the song “It Won’t Be Long Now.”
Leslie Grace (Nina Rosario) also wows with her opening number “Breathe,” as Nina tries to find her place. She has the ability to leave her block and earn a strong education at Stanford, but feels more comfortable in Washington Heights. Her relationship with Benny (Corey Hawkins) serves as a great subplot with heart. Hawkins surprised me with his singing ability. He’s an awesome actor, and his range continues to grow.
While the film has plenty of heart, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) serves as the film’s soul. She is the surrogate grandmother of the neighborhood, and frankly the audience’s as well. Merediz gives a beautiful performance, and takes the film to another level with her number “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith).” There are just so many characters who get their moments and make the most of them. Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) is a great character with some really powerful sequences. Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) puts an exclamation point on the film when she kicks off “Carnaval Del Barrio.” Jimmy Smits (Kevin Rosario) is one of the most notable actors in the film, and I would think of 10 other performances before his. That’s the depth of this musical.
The world building and character development brings the audience into the film. I felt like a member of the family and part of the community. That emotional engagement paves the way for the rest of the film.
Director Jon M. Chu had some clunkers over the years, including “Now You See Me 2,” “Jem and the Holograms” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.” However, he found his footing with “Crazy Rich Asians” and took it up a few more notches with “In the Heights.” This is the kind of film that is in his wheelhouse. He perfectly handles vibrant colors and magical realism and can elevate a strong script. I’m happy to see he found some better properties and hope to see more from him like this in the future.
I love how this movie sets up and pays off scenes in the beginning of the film. The movie tells the audience a blackout looms in three days. It doesn’t explain anything more than that. The blackout just keeps getting closer and closer. The audience has no idea what this means, and that adds to the engagement. Also, there’s a few Easter eggs for Hamilton fans to enjoy.
While the film is almost flawless, I have a few nitpicks. The movie sporadically uses magical realism, like characters walking on the side of a building and creating animation with their hands. I would have liked to have seen more magical realism, especially since the film introduced it and had the right director to accomplish it. At 2 hours, 23 minutes, the film starts to feel its length late. It takes a little too long to bring the film home.
“In the Heights” is on the same level as “Hamilton” as far as theatrical experience and quality, but they are very different productions. Fans of “Hamilton” will love “In the Heights,” because they love great, powerful and emotional musicals. “In the Heights” lives up to the expectations of a Miranda creation and in some ways exceeds them.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Rebecca Kivak and Joe Baress write about movies for Take 2 blog. Together, they review current flicks and offer their insights into the latest movie news. Rebecca is a copy editor and page designer at The Times-Tribune. She started her career with Times-Shamrock Newspapers in 2005 and has won several professional journalism awards for page design and headline writing. She also covers NASCAR races from Pocono Raceway. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5126; @TTRebeccaKivak