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In the Heights Review

5 min read
Despite the heavy themes of the film, the music and energy is always leaping off the screen, resulting in a joyous experience all around!
© WarnerMedia

What They Say:
The creator of ‘Hamilton’ and the director of CRAZY RICH ASIANS invite you to a cinematic event, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big. 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.

The Review:
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Before there was “Hamilton,” before he wrote songs for “Moana,” and before he brought a fantasy merchant to life in “His Dark Materials,” Lin-Manual Miranda wrote, produced, and starred in a musical that took Broadway by storm! That show was “In the Heights,” an intimate story about a Latino community in Washington Heights, NY who had big dreams in life but were weighed down by financial realities. It marked the emergence of not only a promising new talent but a bold new direction for the world of Broadway, which had shifted in a dramatic way when “Mamma Mia” proved that all you needed was a classic song catalog to keep the cash registers ringing (and thus was relying less on original productions for material as a result). The most revolutionary aspect of “In the Heights” was the music, which combined a Latin flavor with hip-hop of the day, bringing a sound that had never been heard on the stage before!

Miranda’s show was successful beyond his wildest dreams and made him an instant star (as well as brought home the Tony Award for Best Book and Best Musical). It wasn’t long after that Hollywood came calling and wanted to turn the show into a movie with Miranda reprising his role as Usnavy. Sadly, the price was considered too high for what most studios wanted to pay at the time and Miranda was not a tested talent in Hollywood, so the project was shelved while Miranda established himself as a Hollywood force in productions like “Modern Family” and “Mary Poppins Returns.” Once “Hamilton” become the show to see on Broadway several years later, Warner Bros. finally invested big time in their big screen adaptation of “In the Heights.” It makes its way to theaters in a bit of a strange state though. With 20 years having passed since the show opened, Miranda was now too old to play Usnavy, and the role has been given to Anthony Ramos (Miranda does appear in a supporting role as Piragüero, the Piragua Guy).

Likewise, the few actors who were in the original production have mere cameos, as “In the Heights” has been given the Hollywood treatment. Fans of the Broadway show might take issue with this because intimacy can be lost in the midst of all the spectacle, but fans of the production are likely going to be pleasantly surprised at how good the final product has turned out. In fact, not only does the film adaptation capture what made the show special, I would argue it elevates the material above the limitations of the stage and uses special effects and camera angle’s to keep the intimate feelings of the Broadway production while using the best movie tricks in the book to create what may be the best cinematic musical we’ve seen since “Les Misérables!” There was an energy that was always pulsing from the screen and the story was heartfelt and dramatic!

One of the things that stood out about the production is how it showed the lives of a Latino community whose lives were, in many ways, very different from some of ours, but whose dreams and ambitions were universal. It didn’t really matter whether you were Latino, African American, or Caucasian, you could watch “In the Heights” and relate to someone who has a dream you probably had or faced a problem you had to deal with at one point in time. In fact, despite the heavily Latino influence, it should be noted that the film was directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), as if to make a statement that we are all capable of understanding one another despite our different cultural backgrounds! In fact my dad – who actually DID live this life (including growing up in the Bronx, NY) – felt the movie captured his childhood so well he was shocked to discover it was directed by an Asian man as opposed to a Latino man.

It goes on to show that “In the Heights” does the best thing that movies do: They transport us to different words, let us walk in other people’s shoes, and (in some rare cases) gives us an out of out-of-body experience! I certainly understood where Usnavi was coming from when he mentions how a part-time job became a ten-year commitment before he knew it. I also sympathize with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who has dreams of becoming a fashion designer (but has yet to get her dresses into any stores). And certainly everyone will get into the “$96,000” musical number, where news that a winning lottery ticket being sold in the area prompts everyone to speculate how the money can change their lives (while acknowledging that it’s “not enough to retire”).

In Summary:

Despite the heavy themes of the film, the music and energy is always leaping off the screen, resulting in a joyous experience all around! “In the Heights” is premiering in theaters as well as HBO Max on the same day, but I can not stress enough how much better this is in theaters. Not only do you want the best presentation you can get (the IMAX I saw it in made the impressive musical numbers all the better), but this is the kind of communal movie that brings people of all different walks in life together! After the movie ended the theater erupted into applause and there was a silent understanding that we all saw something great! “In the Heights” is not only one of the movies we need to bring people together again, but it will likely go down as an all-time classic musical that will be treasured in the same way “The Sound of Music” and “Phantom of the Opera” are! After “Cats” almost single-handedly destroyed the movie musical two years ago, “In the Heights” is here to remind everyone how wonderful the genre can be when done right!

Grade: A

Streamed By: HBO Max