If In the Heights could be described in one word, that word would be a celebration. It’s a giant-sized block party celebration that Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created the stage play this adaptation is based on, invited every person to no matter what their culture or background is. This is an all-inclusive celebration of Latino/a/x culture, community, pride and passion.
Let’s face it, the year 2020 was the worst possible outcome for many reasons including the entertainment industry. 2019 was one of the strongest years in film in recent memory and 2020 had the potential to be even better. Sadly, productions halted, and theaters had to close their doors indefinitely to movie fans young and old, casual and hardcore across the globe. Films were pushed back months even years as a result but finally, the grass is greener, mandates are lifting, the vaccine is being distributed to millions and we can all be welcomed back to the dark, loud movie theater that is made for films like In the Heights. The summer movie season is upon us, kicked off with A Quiet Place Part 2 and succeeded with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation.
If any stage adaptation were to be made into a motion picture, it’s In the Heights. It certainly isn’t the first and won’t be the last to make the transition from stage to screen with the ambition to showcase the cozy, self-contained world on a grander scale. With director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) at the helm and the screenplay written by Quiara Alegría Hudes who also created the stage show with Miranda, the boundaries are expanded well beyond the few blocks that represent Washington Heights and into theaters across the globe. For some, this is the perfect welcome back to theaters if comfortable, if not there is always HBO Max. But, if possible, I would strongly urge everyone to see this on the biggest screen possible.
In the Heights follows several characters but the heart and soul that everything else revolves around is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos). If Usnavi is the heart and soul of the film than Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is the backbone of the film. The story follows Usnavi as an owner of a corner bodega looking to follow his dream, move to his home country of the Dominican Republic where his parents lived and open a bar. Taking place three days prior of a city blackout in the midst of the summer and the aftermath of the blackout, In the Heights is about resilience and overcoming every obstacle and roadblock put in your path while preserving the heritage of the people who came before. That’s just one storyline in grand scheme of things. Every single character has a dream, some reach beyond the blocks of Washington Heights while others are forced to pack up everything, sell their business and leave for good.
In the Heights doesn’t feature a centralized villain, in fact, there isn’t one to be seen or found. It’s quite pleasant since majority of the motion pictures released today have some form of antagonistic character. If a villain type did inhabit this sweet and charming story it would be the circumstances that surround the characters. It’s the gentrification that’s sweeping the city block by block. In come the wealthy, the hipsters who skyrocket the prices of literally everything, destroying the rich and vibrant culture and heritage created by this family. Though they may not be related as Abuela Claudia says (she never had children) they are all her family and treat her as such – their dreams are her dreams. In turn, Claudia opens her arms, home, history and cooking to us feeling like an even bigger extended family than Lin-Manuel could have imagined.
While it’s Usnavi’s story, every character is given their moment, albeit a song or a plot full of depth and exposition. There’s Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), Nina (Leslie Grace) (Benny’s long-time girlfriend), Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) (Usnavi’s love interest), Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) (Usnavi’s cousin). Every character has their own purpose, has their own fleshed out story to tell, not one single person is wasted here.
One of the more prominent themes here is following your passion, living out your dreams. It’s easily relatable as we all have dreams, we wish to conquer and achieve; Even more so in the city and Washington Heights. It’s a concrete jungle – a living breathing organism that runs on Usnavi’s coffee and condensed milk.
What stands out the most however are the little details – from the Hamilton ring back music Stanford uses (I loved that moment and recognizing it instantly) to the stitching on the napkins Abuela’s mother crafted, the callbacks, the connections, every detail is handled with care and has significance to every character.
The ensemble is impressive, yet we should have known how well Jon M. Chu can handle a large cast. Along with Jimmy Smits, Dasha Polanco and Daphne Rubin-Vega in supporting roles, every character is perfectly cast that adds their own flair and personality to.
Musically, the music screams Lin-Manuel’s signature. The choreography is spectacular and epic in scale, It’s energetic, easy to sing along to (as best you can), want to get up and dance to the beat in the theater and connect with. In the Heights is the perfect feel-good summer party. Along with the music – a mismatched blend of genres that work so beautifully together, the sound design is even more impressive. I’m reminded of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver with how well he incorporated the music in everything Baby did while walking down the street or driving a car. One minute the club is electric and the next, complete silence – the silence was louder than when the music was blasting out of the theaters speaker system. Once the sound disappeared, you miss it, crave it and wish it never blacked out with the rest of Washington Heights.
I can’t remember the last time I had this type of reaction to a film like this. John M. Chu’s direction gives off a feeling of intimacy while being the ambitious larger than life block party that lasts 143-minutes. Don’t let that number fool you either – the film moves as quick as a New York minute but still has moments to be engulfed in, that breathe and take its time. One scene will have you laughing, living care-free and the next will rip your heart out leaving you broken – every emotion possible is felt from this story of family, culture and community. Visually breathtaking and ethnically proud (every Caribbean country is represented, from the Dominican to Puerto Rico to Cuba, South America and Jamaica)– see this in the theaters, if you are comfortable. I like this more than Hamilton.
In the Heights is written by Quiara Alegría Hudes based on characters by Quiara Alegría Hudes & Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Jon M. Chu is Rated PG-13 and has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. In the Heights was released on June 11, 2021 in the United States and has a runtime of 2 hours and 23 minutes. In the Heights can be seen in theaters and streamed on HBO Max as a part of their day and date release schedule. 5 out of 5.