In the Heights is a phenomenal film and the big screen Broadway adaptation is well on its way to joining the great screen classic musicals.
Neither Jon M. Chu or Lin-Manuel Miranda are strangers to diverse productions. Chu hit it big with Crazy Rich Asians a few years ago. Miranda, meanwhile, has had no shortage of hits come from his visionary mind. Both In the Heights and Hamilton were hits on the stage. In a perfect world, we’d have seen this film before the filmed version of Hamilton. Alas, the pandemic forced audiences to watch in the reverse order. If you notice closely, there might be a Hamilton easter egg here and there.
The gist of the film is a focus on three days before a blackout in a tight-knit Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights. Like any musical, there’s an ensemble of characters taking our attention at all times throughout the film. However, bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) is the main star here and he wants a bigger life for himself. The film is told through flashbacks and little by little, we learn more about what’s happened between then and now. It’s a solid framing choice and even if you haven’t seen the stage musical, you won’t be confused. The title song, “In the Heights,” also introduces all the main characters.
The cast is nothing short of phenomenal. Ramos has great chemistry with Melissa Barrera, who stars as Vanessa. Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace aren’t bad themselves when it comes to their roles. Hawkins stars as Benny, a traffic dispatcher. Grace stars as Nina Rosario, the daughter of car service owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). Ramos, however, is what glues the film together from start to finish.
It wouldn’t be a Broadway movie adaptation without adding a new song. In this case, they add “Home All Summer.” The new song is sung by Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, and features Marc Anthony. I expect this song to be a strong contender during awards season. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Oscar is coming–this isn’t a matter of if but when. Aside from that, “96,000” is a beautifully shot piece featuring synchronized swimming. There are some lyrical changes because of filming during the then-Trump administration. I don’t know how “96,000” looked on stage during the Tony Award-winning musical run but it is visually stunning on film. Honestly, I’d have been dancing in my seat but didn’t want to stand out.
Even for viewers not living in New York, In the Heights should be a film that resonates with them. It’ll for sure resonate with those first-generation and second-generation Americans. In many ways, this film is about the immigration experience. It’s about wanting a better life for themselves. At the end of the day, isn’t this the American Dream?
Thinking ahead to awards season, I expect a lot of nominations for this film including cinematographer Alice Brooks, editor Myron Kerstein, and more. There’s going to be no shortage of love for this film. After all, it’s the type of film we need to be seeing on the screen!
When we talk about needing authentic representation on screen, films like In the Heights are exactly what we mean. Hollywood is making progress in this regard but obviously it’s still a work in progress. On screen, there’s a very diverse cast dancing and singing. Beyond that, 2021 could be heralding the return of the big screen Hollywood musicals. We saw the heyday back when Arthur Freed ran things at MGM but lately, musicals seem to be few and far between. Are we heading towards a new golden age? Possibly but I don’t know. One thing that is for sure is that Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of the greatest minds of the 21st century. Whatever happens, Miranda will almost certainly be in the conversation.
In the Heights is the next great big screen musical. If you’re comfortable and able to do so, I recommend seeing In the Heights on the biggest screen possible.
DIRECTOR: Jon M. Chu
SCREENWRITER: Quiara Alegría Hudes
CAST: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Marc Anthony, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, and Jimmy Smits