February 2023

In the Heights (2021)


CAST: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Lin-Manuel Miranda


Prolific and multi-talented Broadway star and singer-songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda first developed In the Heights long before 2015’s phenomenon Hamilton made him a more recognizable name, and bringing it first to the stage and then eventually to the screen has been a longtime labor of love. In fact, Miranda first wrote what would become In the Heights in college, then fine-tuned it in 2002 with the intention of producing it as a Broadway show. The version that eventually debuted on the Broadway stage was co-written by Miranda and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudges. In 2008 the original Broadway run of In the Heights (also starring Miranda himself) was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won 4, including Best Musical. The film rights were bought the same year, but it has taken thirteen years for a film adaptation of In the Heights to reach the screen. The result, while overlong and not among the top tier of film musicals (or Miranda’s own output), and likely a little less relatable to viewers not personally connected to the Hispanic-American immigrant experience, is still a lively and enjoyable “feel good” experience.

As those familiar with the stage musical will know, the story is set in the predominantly Hispanic immigrant community of Manhattan’s Washington Heights during a sweltering summer (eventually made worse by an inopportune blackout) and follows an ensemble of neighborhood characters, but predominantly centers around Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), whose quirky name derives from his immigrant father naming him after a US Navy ship. Scraping by as a young bodega owner and nursing rose-tinted nostalgic childhood memories of his late father’s native Dominican Republic, Usnavi harbors a dream of going “home”, despite also pining for local beauty Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works an unfulfilling job as a nail salon girl while aspiring to be an artist and fashion designer. We also follow other subplots, like returning local girl Nina (Leslie Grace), who got sent away to a prestigious education at Stanford but feels alienated and homesick and intends to drop out, which doesn’t sit well with her businessman father (Jimmy Smits), who sold his business to pay for her education, although Nina’s homecoming might be more welcome by her admirer, flamboyant DJ Benny (Corey Hawkins).

Comparisons to Hamilton, while inevitable, are somewhat unfair given that, while Hamilton was a filmed recording of the original stage show, In the Heights is a conventional straightforward film adaptation. Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny that In the Heights is less universally relatable. While viewers can still take it more generally as a story of hard-working working-class neighborhood characters pursuing their dreams (and in some cases, realizing what they truly want out of life), there are times when it resonates less for viewers who are not personally familiar with the Hispanic immigrant experience. While the movie doesn’t spend much time getting overtly political, there are references to Dreamers and undocumented immigrants, and economic stagnation and poverty are always prominent background elements. Nonetheless, this is predominantly a life-affirming, feel good experience and at that, it is largely successful. Two themes are heavy through-lines, the concept of a neighborhood as a communal adoptive “family”, and several characters—mainly Usnavi and Nina—learning lessons about the difference between dreams and reality and Usnavi deciding where “home” truly lies for him. He might cling to rose-tinted nostalgic childhood memories of his “home” in the Dominican Republic, but everyone who means anything to him lives in Washington Heights. We also see the conflict between Nina’s father, who never finished high school and wants better for his daughter, selling his company to send her to Stanford, and Nina who feels alienated and homesick by her father pushing ambitions on her that she might not want for herself.

In the Heights achieves a feel of slice-to-life authenticity and verisimilitude by filming on the real streets of Washington Heights, but while occasionally wanting to be a little more gritty and true-to-life than some musicals, director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) also supplies moments of visual flair (such as Nina and Benny’s surrealist fantasy sequence where they dance vertically on the side of the building) and elaborately-choreographed musical numbers (especially in the “$96,000” synchronized swimming pool scene and the club dance scene). The two and a half hour runtime is overlong and there are times when the narrative momentum flags, but while it lacks the relentless drive of Hamilton, there are enough lively musical numbers to kick things back into gear whenever it threatens to lag too much, and like Hamilton it serves up a variety of musical styles, including exposition-heavy rapid-fire rap numbers, pop, and showtunes, unsurprisingly often with snippets of Spanish and Latin influence. There are moments of resemblance to RENT and West Side Story, and of course Hamilton (anyone familiar with Miranda’s style from Hamilton will recognize it in In the Heights despite the differences in tone and subject matter).

In The Heights Review | Movie - Empire

For the cast of the film adaptation, Olga Merediz (who plays Usnavi’s beloved Abuela) is the lone carry-over from the original stage show, although lead Anthony Ramos had previously played Usnavi onstage in a 2018 run of In the Heights, and has a further Miranda connection by appearing in Hamilton (in a dual role as both Hamilton’s wartime comrade John Laurens and later his son Philip). His love interest Melissa Barrera had a successful career in Mexican soap operas before branching into American film. Miranda himself, who originated the lead role of Usnavi, has a small role as a street vendor, as does Christopher Jackson, Hamilton‘s George Washington (and the original stage Benny). Arguably the standout in the supporting cast is Jimmy Smits (the movie’s biggest “name”), who does a nice job bringing a little depth to a side character.

Once thought of as outdated and no longer popular, musicals have seen a resurgence in recent years, whether Oscar-nominated original films like La La Land or The Greatest Showman , Broadway shows like Hamilton, or film adaptations like In the Heights, all quality productions demonstrating how exuberant, energetic, and crowd-pleasing well-executed musicals can be. Despite an overlong runtime and some narrative meandering, In the Heights‘ mix of lively musical numbers, real-world concerns, and feel-good messaging makes it still an enjoyable and pleasing experience that finds a respectable place among the recent musical revival.

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