Review: “In the Heights”

We’re likely all familiar with how ground-breaking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical “Hamilton” was, but it’s safe to say that that show might not exist were it not for the success of Miranda’s first show, “In the Heights.” When “In the Heights” opened on Broadway in 2008, it entered a space predominantly inhabited by shows made by white creators, with white stars belting standards, and delivered a story centered around New York City’s Latinx community, starring people of color, and filled with hip-hop and salsa tunes. The production won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and a film adaptation (originally to be directed by Kenny Ortega) was in the works almost immediately. It’s taken over ten years for that film version to come to fruition, and while maybe it was hurried along thanks to the sky-rocketing success of Miranda’s second show, it stands on its own as one of the best stage-to-screen musical adaptations in years, as well as a huge step in positive representation for the Latinx community.

In the Heights” is directed by Jon M. Chu, retaining much of the show’s music by Miranda, while Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for the original Broadway show, penned the screenplay. A show-stopping, nearly 12 minute long opening number introduces us to the characters, their dreams, and the Washington Heights neighborhood they inhabit. The story’s narrator and main protagonist is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner who dreams of returning to his home in the Dominican Republic and restoring his late father’s business there. He runs the store with his younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), an undocumented immigrant who may never be able to achieve his dream of attending college. He has a crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who is trying to scrounge up the money she needs to move downtown and live out her dreams of being a fashion designer. Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) works the dispatch for Kevin Rosario’s (Jimmy Smits) taxi company; Kevin sees all his dreams in his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) and her future, but here we see Nina returning home from a year at Stanford feeling deflated by the lack of a community she found there and preparing to drop out.

Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in “In the Heights”

It’s the dreams of these characters, which we watch unfold over the course of several days involving a lottery winner and a blackout during a heatwave, that drive “In the Heights” forward, as opposed to any concrete plot, although a framing device that sees an older Usnavi recounting the story to a group of children does somewhat anchor it. What works much better as a sign of the times is the ways, both subtle and obvious, that we see the characters’ neighborhood change around them. This is a community that is already marginalized, and throughout the film we see evidence of (mostly white) business owners forcing them even further into the margins. The rising cost of rent drives salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) to move her business to the Bronx. Kevin, who has already sold half of his storefront to an organic dry cleaning business, considers selling the rest of his business to help pay for the rest of Nina’s tuition. Even the Piragua guy (played by Miranda) sees competition from a Mr. Softee ice-cream truck (the owner of which is played by fellow original “In the Heights” Broadway cast member Christopher Jackson). But throughout, the characters are resilient. As the barrio’s matriarch, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from the original Broadway cast) states, they must assert their dignity in small ways. Daniela asserts that their people have survived genocide and racial discrimination; they can survive a train ride to the Bronx. Nina realizes that maybe by leaving her home and going back to college she can find a way to help her people (one of the updates the movie makes from the original musical is incorporating the DACA issue into the conversation). And Usnavi and Vanessa, who have both tried to get away to make a better life for themselves for so long, realize they’ve been home all along.

The prospect of the way of life and heritage present in the barrio disappearing is melancholy, but the movie never plays it that way. This is a love letter to Washington Heights and the people who live there, and the film is an exuberant celebration of their culture. We see it in the club where all the young people dance the night away. We see it in the family dinners and gatherings. We see it in the “Carnaval del Barrio” number, where Daniela rouses the worn out community to not mourn what they are losing but celebrate what they have, as they fly flags from their home countries. Is it overly optimistic? Perhaps, but this is the sort of pride and joy that we need to see in a big movie like this (I recommend seeking out reviews from Latinx critics to get a better sense of what this movie did or did not achieve in terms of representation, however; Rosa (@rosasreviews on Twitter) of the Latinx Lens podcast assembled a thread of reviews that is a good place to start).

Cory Hawkes in the “96,000” number in “In the Heights”

Naturally, the most effective way that “In the Heights” demonstrates that joy is through music, and this movie delivers on elaborate numbers that take full advantage of the cinematic medium to differentiate itself from the stage musical entirely, and that demand to be seen on the big screen. Admittedly, some of these numbers felt rather awkwardly shot and edited to me; Chu occasionally uses odd angles and perspectives, as well as quick cuts, in his shots that are certainly different, but don’t always show off the full scope of the choreography (by Christopher Scott) to the best advantage. There were several instances where I wished he had just pulled the camera back a bit more, or lingered on a moment for a little longer, such as the massive “96,000” number set at a swimming pool. As the characters sing about what they might do if they won the lottery, the camera moves above the characters, under the water, follows them around, and cuts quickly between close-ups and longshots in a way that feels a little too chaotic. But this is a relatively minor quibble, and there are plenty of other instances where Chu’s inventive direction works wonders, such as a great shot in the opening number where we see Usnavi looking out the window of his bodega, the crowd of dancers outside visible in the reflection, or in what I think is the film’s most powerful number, “Paciencia y Fe.” As Abuela Claudia reflects on her life and on coming to America in the latter song, there’s a remarkable shot on a subway that brings us from the present to the past in the literal blink of an eye. Whether it was intentional on the part of the filmmakers or not, the history of the movie musical is present in this film’s ever-shifting style. At the start of “96,000,” the characters interact with animated objects that help illustrate their wishes; like Gene Kelly dancing with an animated Tom from “Tom & Jerry” in the 1945 musical “Anchors Aweigh,” it’s equal parts gimmicky and mesmerizing. The number then transitions to the aforementioned pool scene, which has shades of an Esther Williams musical. And “When the Sun Goes Down,” a duet between Benny and Nina set on a fire escape, ventures into a full dream sequence when the couple start to dance up and down the wall of the building. Sound is used to great effect as well; to back-track once again to the opening number, ordinary objects are used as instruments, as we are made fully aware of the clicks and clacks of the gate as Usnavi leaves home for the day, and a manhole cover is scratched like a record. The way that this epic opening starts simply and builds to a crescendo is enough to make you want to stand up and clap by the time the title of the film finally shows up on screen.

Two more things outside of the catchy songs help sell “In the Heights,” however: the location filming in New York, which authentically captures the community the film depicts, and the cast. Merediz gives the role of Abuela Claudia her whole heart, and it’s fun to see veterans Smits (also heart-breaking as a father trying to do right by his daughter), Miranda, Ruben-Vega, and Marc Anthony, but it’s the fresh-faced young cast who the film revolves around, and who have a memorable powerful presence on screen. Ramos may be best known for originating the dual role of John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton in “Hamilton” on Broadway, and he’s appeared in minor supporting roles in a few films since then, such as “A Star is Born” and “Godzilla vs. Kong.” But he really signals his arrival with this role and this movie, proving without a doubt with his talent and his presence that he deserves to be the lead. He’s funny, good-hearted, charismatic, occasionally awkward at social events but articulate when it comes to what he wants. The entire cast, especially Usnavi and his group of friends and family, has an easy chemistry that makes it even more believable that we are watching people who have known each other almost all their lives.

“In the Heights” hurriedly (and predictably) wraps up everyone’s stories at the end, but even if I didn’t get that emotional punch to the gut that I did in some of the scenes earlier in the film, it still concludes on a satisfactorily uplifting note. It’s the rare stage-to-screen adaptation that stays true to the spirit of the source material while taking full advantage of what the different medium has to offer. In hindsight, we’re fortunate that the “In the Heights” movie didn’t move forward as originally planned back in 2008. We needed to see this spectacle after the pandemic deprived us of the chance to for so long, and we needed to see a story about dreamers, big and small, after a year (or two or three) that challenged the dreams of so many.

“In the Heights” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Runtime: 143 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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