In the Heights (United States, 2021)

June 10, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
In the Heights Poster

When contemplating a musical, whether it’s a Hollywood classic, an original screen creation, or a stage-to-movie adaptation, there are two key considerations. The first is that the film has a story worth telling and that its raison d’etre isn’t the singing and dancing. The second is that the songs are engaging and/or memorable. For the most part, In the Heights satisfies both of these conditions, although the high-energy musical numbers represent the motivation to stick with the movie when the narrative momentum flags.

Lin Manuel Miranda first developed In the Heights for the stage long before his success with Hamilton made him a household name. He wrote the musical while in college then revised it in 2002 with an eye toward producing it. The version that would eventually make it to Broadway was the product of Miranda and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudges. In 2008, it was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, of which it won four, including Best Musical. Although the rights were optioned as early as 2008, it has taken thirteen years for a filmed version of In the Heights to make it to the screen.

Set in Manhattan’s Washington Heights (located on a portion of the island north of 155th Street), In the Heights focuses on a small group of characters who represent different outlooks and perspectives of a neighborhood that has changed and evolved over the years with the influx of immigrants (especially from the Dominican Republic) and, more recently, with gentrification. Although the movie does not dwell deeply on political elements, there is a subplot involving an undocumented teenager and issues of poverty and economic stagnation are constant background elements. The overall tone is upbeat with the community/neighborhood aspect of “Little Dominican Republic” dominating.

The story mostly transpires over several days before and after “The Blackout” during a sweltering New York summer. The narrator is Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), whose name derived from the “U.S. Navy” label on a ship. A bodega owner whose store occurs at the center of the action, Usnavi dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic while pining for local beauty Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whom he adores from afar. He works with his younger cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and cares for Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the aging Cuban woman who helped raise him. Other characters are his best friend, Benny (Corey Hawkins), and Nina (Leslie Grace), a Stanford freshman who has decided to quit college – much to the dismay of her businessman father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who sold his company to pay for her education.

Thematically, In the Heights focuses on the concept of “home” being more than a geographical location. Both Usnavi and Nina learn lessons about the difference between dreams and reality and Usnavi comes to accept that, although he may long for the perfect Dominican Republic of his memories and dreams, his place in the world – where everyone important to him lives – is Washington Heights.

Although In the Heights has a solid through-line dramatic story, that’s not the movie’s strength. The characters are well-developed and the concept of a neighborhood as an extended family provides cohesion but the narrative is unevenly paced and aspects of the resolution of Nina’s story (in particular) feel too convenient. During the play’s run, Hudes’ book was cited by some critics as being a weakness and there are times when her screenplay bogs down and the dialogue isn’t the breeziest. Fortunately, the music is always at the ready to recalibrate the production’s momentum and get it back on track.

Musically, In the Heights shows a plethora of inspirations – a smorgasbord catering to nearly every proclivity. For the old-timers, there’s an homage to the style of kaleidoscopic top-shot arrangements popularized by choreographer/director Busby Berkeley (in this case, synchronized swimming in a pool). There are times when a shot or a number call to mind sources as diverse as West Side Story, Little Shop of Horrors, La La Land, and even the Disney live-action Newsies. Inarguably, the most obvious connections are to Rent and Hamilton, the latter of which would spotlight a maturation of the style shown by Miranda in In the Heights.

As is true of every musical, not all numbers are created equal and, in In the Heights, those that are designed as centerpieces exude the greatest energy. “In the Heights,” which opens the film, combines rap lyrics with more traditional passages to establish many of the characters and introduce the setting. “96,000” features the aforementioned pool sequence. “Blackout” ends the first act (although the film, unlike the play, doesn’t pause). And the grand finale brings In the Heights to a rousing conclusion.

For the most part, the filmmakers haven’t drawn on the numerous stage productions (pre-Broadway, Broadway, touring) for the cast. Lead actor Anthony Ramos has a previous connection to Miranda, having appeared in Hamilton. Melissa Barrera had a successful career in Mexican television before expanding her reach to the United States. The biggest “name” in the ensemble is Jimmy Smits, who plays Nina’s father. Olga Merediz represents the lone holdover from the Broadway show, reprising her Tony-nominated role as Abuela Claudia. Miranda and Chris Jackson, who were Usnavi and Benny in the stage version, have small roles here as the dueling food sellers Piragua Guy and Mister Softee.

We often hear that the movie musical genre is on life support but, while it’s true that Hollywood produces fewer of these films than decades ago, the level of quality is generally high, whether it’s an Oscar-nominated production like La La Land, a bare-bones filming of a stage show like Hamilton, or a more traditional play-to-film translation like In the Heights. Despite some sluggish narrative passages and tonal inconsistencies, this represents one of the most exuberant and energetic productions to arrive in the post-pandemic era and its mixture of feel-good elements and real-world concerns is a welcome change from horror movies and action mayhem.

In the Heights (United States, 2021)

Run Time: 2:23
U.S. Release Date: 2021-06-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Musical
Subtitles: In English and Spanish with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1