The perfect Summer film
IN THE HEIGHTS (2021)
A little over 13 years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights debuted on Broadway to critical acclaim. Despite winning the Tony for Best New Musical that year, it faded into obscurity. That is, until Miranda gained wider recognition for Hamilton. Soon after, there was interest in reviving the show as a feature film. In the years since, its journey to the big screen has been a little bumpy, but it’s finally here. Not only is it the perfect Summer film, it’s one of the best films of the year too.
Now, I should probably preface this review by saying that I’ve been a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda since before it was cool. I saw In The Heights the year it came to Broadway, and from the moment I first heard the soundtrack I’ve been obsessed. So you can imagine how much joy it brings me that the rest of the world can finally discover and enjoy something I’ve loved for so long.
Now, it’s one thing to anticipate an upcoming film, but is there any better feeling than that film being everything you wanted it to be? That’s how it felt watching In the Heights. But before you think that I walked into this film totally biased, it’s important to know that I actually had pretty low expectations going in. The film is directed by Jon M. Chu. If you’re not entirely familiar with his filmography, it consists of mostly critical and commercial failures. From Step Up 2: The Streets to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, and it’s fairly forgettable sequel Justin Bieber: Believe, this man was a bomb factory. That is, until 2018 when he made one of the most successful films featuring a primarily Asian cast: Crazy Rich Asians. In hindsight, it appears that it took Chu a while to finally find his voice. Going into In the Heights though, I honestly thought the man had just gotten lucky with his last film, and was prepared to see him destroy something that already seemed too good to be true.
I could not be happier to say that both Chu’s version and vision blew me away. You see, on a Broadway stage it’s no secret that there’s only so much space for the actors to play, but here Chu strikes down those barriers to not only give the characters more space, but to showcase NYC in all its imperfect, yet perfect glory. From the show-stopping splash of a sequence for “$96,000” to the colorful and multicultural creed titled “Carnaval del Barrio” the result is a beautiful and boundless snapshot of the city that never sleeps that not even the best dream could make you forget.
The overarching story revolves around the lives of several neighbors as they intertwine over the course of a few hot days in Washington Heights. The film’s main protagonist is a young Dominican immigrant named Usnavi who owns a bodega and struggles to get by, while also looking after his young cousin named Sonny. Now, there’s obviously a lot more to the film, but I think the best way to enter it is without knowing anything at all. Even if you’ve seen the musical, I’d encourage you to go into this film as blindly as possible because it’s actually quite different from the source material.
To be honest, I noticed one of the film’s biggest changes within the first few minutes - most fans will - but then I remembered that this film is an adaptation, not a replica. As I hinted at earlier, certain things that made sense on stage might not make sense here, and certain themes that the show might have explored when the musical debuted in 2008 might not be relevant anymore. Without saying anything else, I can confirm that all of the changes make sense and that, whether you’re a fan of the musical or not, there’s something in it for everyone.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The best way in which the film is the most faithful to its source material is with its cast of primarily hispanic/latinx actors. The representation is literally real here. While the only actor to reprise her role from the musical is Olga Merediz, everyone else slides seamlessly into the characters just as I remember them. As much as I believe that the cast is acting though, I also believe that the story evokes this sense of authenticity that you probably wouldn’t see from them in any other film. While I didn’t pick up on it before, I got the same exact vibe from the actors/characters in Crazy Rich Asians, and now it makes even more sense why Chu was brought on to direct.
Even though the entire cast is great, Anthony Ramos is the star. Between his humbleness, his humor, and his hustle, I’d even go so far as to say that he plays Usnavi better than Miranda played him.
Now, currently there’s a lot of (super) early Oscar buzz for Merediz’s performance as Abuela Claudia and I could totally see her being a strong contender. If Ramos’ Usnavi is the heart of the film, she’s easily the soul. Her heartbreaking solo “Paciencia Y Fe” is one of the most emotional sequences I’ve seen in a film all year.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
If you were to ask me to rate any of the effects, makeup, or design on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d simply say, “96,000.” As mentioned before, that is not only one of the best sequences in the entire film, but it’s the one scene that illustrates how great all three aspects are together.
In another musical sequence between two of the film’s young-and-in-love characters, Benny and Nina, we see them float off into a transforming skyline as they share one last dance before they part ways. Capturing just how high they make each other feel, it’s both a beautiful and bittersweet salutation which demonstrates that here special effects aren’t used as a means to amplify moments, but to emphasize their importance to our characters.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
If I’m being honest, I did originally have an issue with the film. It primarily revolved around the fact that the film features a very prominent Spanish singer in a cameo, but doesn’t bother utilizing his vocals. Fortunately, I was promptly proven wrong when the credits began rolling. For those who don’t know, Lin-Manuel Miranda recorded a new song for the film and that actor is featured on it.
Other than that, in case it wasn’t already obvious, the sound in this film is fantastic. Not just the music; all of the sound. Mixed with some of the city's signature sounds - such as jingling keys, taxis, subways, and sirens - it perfectly captures the spirit and experience of being a New Yorker.
In addition to being one of the best films of the Summer, and one of the best films of the year, In the Heights is also one of the best movie musicals in recent memory. And long after the credits roll it’ll be remembered for the way in which it gave the Latinx community the spotlight it’s always deserved, while simultaneously celebrating all of the dreamers that keep the world’s spark from going dark.
IN THE HEIGHTS hits theaters and HBO MAX on June 11th