In the Heights (2021) Review

A JUBILANT AND ENERGETIC MUSICAL

EVENT OF THE YEAR


 

Years before Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household name after the universal acclaim and success from his Broadway show Hamilton, the creative behind worked on another theatrical stage show titled In the Heights. The roots of the shows first began back during Miranda’s sophomore year in college in 1999; focusing on a story that is set over the course of three days and involving several characters in the largely Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan in New York City. Miranda first presented the play at Wesleyan University theatre company and premiered in 2000 as an 80-minute one act show, with many considering it to be a “hip hop version of Rent”. From there, Miranda’s In the Heights expanded upon the show and premiered the newest iteration at the Eugene O’Neil Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut in 2005 and then again at the 37 Arts Theater off-Broadway production in 2007. With the success that the show had received, Miranda finally got his “big break” with In the Heights premiering on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2008 and ran for several years, with the final show closing the production on January 9th, 2011. In the Heights did receive over thirteen Tony Awards and won four one of the, including Best Musical, Best Choreography, Best Orchestration, and Best Sound Design. The overwhelming success of what In the Heights was able to achieve certainly fueled the talented Miranda to further expanded upon his new styles of Broadway shows and showtunes; acting as the precursor to the universal acclaim of what would become Hamilton. Now, almost twenty years since first creating the concept of the play, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical heads to the big screen as Warner Bros. Pictures and director Jon M. Chu present the film adaptation of In the Heights. Does this cinematic tale on the popular musical reach new heights or is it lyrical nightmare that fails to connect to the silver screen?

THE STORY


Set within the middle of scorching hot summer in the community in Washington Heights, convenient store owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is fighting through the mundane days by sticking to his routine, aided with his younger cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) throughout the daily slog. Usnavi has a dream to return to the Dominican Republic and reopen a business left behind by his late father, finally saving up a heft some of money to make the dream a reality. Elsewhere in the community, Vanessa (Melissa Barrerra) works at a local salon, but desires to live a much grander / fuller life with a career dream in fashion design, but is unable to afford such a vision. Meanwhile, Nina (Leslie Grace) is the “shining star” of the community, with the young woman returning home after a year at Stanford University, hiding a deep secret that complicates her relationship with her proud father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits). Lastly, Benny (Corey Hawkins) is a local cab dispatcher in love with Nina, trying to balance the needs of his job and the needs of his heart in trying to woo the pride of Washington Heights with his charm. As these individuals strived towards their own personal dreams, they face trying times ahead for their community; besting the heat, a blackout, and the “sign of the times” that looms ever presence in the distance.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Much like what I said in my opening paragraph, I really do think that Lin-Manuel Miranda has become a household name; finding the stardom, success, and notoriety of fame from the uber popular Broadway hit of Hamilton. Since then, Miranda has been many other projects, including starring in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns movie and the HBO / BBC fantasy series drama His Dark Materials as well as additional projects along the way. Miranda has continued to work with various music departments; lending his experience to a variety of theater productions and movies, including 2016’s Moana. Before all that, however, Miranda brought his first theater show to the stage with In the Heights; gaining the notoriety he indeed in the theater and to expand his talent. Personally, I like Miranda’s work and his acting talent; showcasing a persona that is sincere, fierce, and dedicated that is both charming and commanding whenever he’s “center stage”. I, for one, admire Miranda’s talent and hope that he continues to share his work with us all.

Naturally, this brings me back to talking about In the Heights, 2021 musical film that is a film adaptation of Miranda’s popular Broadway show. Like many, I did not hear of Miranda until Hamilton became a “big hit”, so I had very little knowledge of the project when it was first announced a few years back. However, after hearing a few of the songs from Hamilton, I kind of liked Miranda’s style, which seems to be a mixture classic showtunes and new style of rap / pop; breathing life into Broadway with new energy. Because of this, I was definitely interested to see what Miranda had to offer with In the Heights. Plus, the idea of bringing the stage play to a cinematic format intrigued me. This was fully realized when the film’s movie trailer dropped in December of 2019 and the preview made the film looked incredible; brimming with style and music. After that, I was really excited to see In the Heights when it was originally set to be released during the summer of 2020. However, due to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie was delayed an entire year, with a new set date for In the Heights being set for July 2021. In addition, the movie was part of the Warner Bros. releases that were going to be released both in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. For me, since I have HBO Max, I decided to go ahead and watch In the Heights from the comfort of my home, but I was still very much excited to see the movie, especially since the film was delayed for quite some time.  And what did I think of it? Well, I really liked it…. very much so. Overall, In the Heights is a welcomed and entertaining addition in the cinematic variety of musical; blending cultural representation, colorful characters, and snappy musical sequences that speak to Miranda’s nuances and Chu’s direction. There are so minor problems with the movie, the film itself is bursting with so music and character that one can easily dismiss those small points of criticism and like one character says in the movie “I want to listen to my neighborhood”.

In the Heights is directed Jon M. Chu, whose previous directorial works include such Step Up 2: The Streets, Now You See Me 2, and Crazy Rich Asians. While some of his works are bit underwhelming and bland (i.e., Jem and the Holograms), Chu seems have found success when he directed the mega popular and well-received in Crazy Rich Asians; finding a proper rhythm of style, cultural, cinematic visuals, and storytelling. It was probably because of Crazy Rich Asians that Chu was intrigued and selected to helm such a project of bringing Miranda’s In the Heights stage show to a cinematic format. I certainly agree with that notion. To his credit, Chu definitely succeeds and he takes from what he learned on the popular 2018 film and transplant that idea; approaching Miranda’s source material with a sense of sincerity, but also one that is bursting with color, energy, and music. In almost every scene, Chu captures the very essence of what Miranda envisioned for a movie of his show and its clear that the director holds onto Broadway show; capitalizing on the idea of lively musical numbers and emotionally beats throughout for character development. Naturally, the film’s music is main attraction for the film (more on that below), Chu makes the film inviting to watch beyond the musical set-pieces; presenting an intricate tale of various characters, who are following their own dreams and dealing with struggles along the way. It’s a tried-and-true narrative piece to tackle, but Chu seems to navigate it quite well. Just like what he did with Crazy Rich Asians and the whole romantic comedy angle, Chu goes full force with In the Heights; understanding a balance of music and character, which adds a sense of familiarity, but also different as the same time. The end result definitely works as Chu’s In the Heights is lively piece that is masterful done under his direction.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect that In the Heights presents is in the cultural representation of the Latin / Spanish community. Like Crazy Rich Asians showed the cultural representation of Asians, Chu presents the Latino community in a very way positive; bringing their understanding of family and community to the forefront of the movie, with the story (from Miranda’s musical play) playing up those nuances to a prolithic degree. It is because of this that the movie excels. It’s not the just the physical representation of the Latinos in the movie, but how they fit into their society community and the changing of the times (as mentioned in the story), which is quite a timely thing and understanding. Whatever you take away from this movie, In the Heights is a movie that is focused on the struggles and triumphs of its Latino characters and the cultural impact that they share with themselves and with each other. I, for one, applaud Hollywood for sharing this light upon the community and on Miranda’s voice as it is something that speaks to the times that we live in.

As to be expected, In the Heights main attraction is (of course) the musical numbers that come from the Broadway show. The translation from “stage to screen” is well-represented as Chu brings camera into a fantastic way of showcasing Miranda’s songs….be it small character songs (where the camera is squarely focused on them) to big song and dance numbers that involve various characters as well as performers. Is this where the movie shines, with Chu creating a visual feast for the eyes when the In the Heights songs. Much like what Miranda wanted to convey, the songs are both bombastic and loud (crafting energy), but also reflecting on personal struggles in others. The whole juxtaposition of these sequences are felt and carry weight from one song to the next. One such example of this is from the film’s opening salvo number of “In the Heights” (introducing all the characters), with a loud and upbeat tones, and then changes gears to “Breath” a more reflective piece of worries and dilemma. In addition, Miranda’s music speaks to a new generation and the film adheres to that; interjecting rapping style singing and cultural nuances that feel appropriate and timely for the film’s release. Personally, my personal favorite sequence in the movie is the “96,000”, which cultivates in Miranda’s music and Chu’s direction for a big-time show stopper scene that is (to me) the high point. Additionally, the choreography of all the dancing (both by the main cast and background dancers) are extremely well-done in the movie and definitely add to the film’s likeability. I really could go on and on about what I liked about this aspect of In the Heights, but you get the gist of what I’m saying. All in all, if you are looking for something bold and musical driven that mirrors the frenetic energy and charming lyrical…. then the music / dancing numbers of In the Heights is right up your alley.

Of course, the visual presentation of In the Heights is just as lively and colorful as is the film’s score and characters. From onset to conclusion, the movie’s visual appeal is quite appealing and has its own signature identity; blending urban street living with a vibrant splash of color and ethnicity community. It’s almost like the city area of Washington Heights (from the streets to the interior apartment dwellings) are a film character unto itself and bring a certain type of style. It’s almost like what one character says in the movie “little details that shows the world we are not invisible”. I know that is more of a metaphor for cultural representation, but this can also be applied to the film’s background setting through its various nuances. Plus, while the movie has a real-world aesthetics through the Latino community, Chu and his team bring a sense of theatrical Broadway boldness to the feature; utilizing a lot of color imagery and fantastical elements that help capture heightened visuals make various scenes “pop” to the eyes. To be sure, it’s not a “candy coated” makeover, but it is one that is teeming with vibrant colors that will surely delight anyone’s eyes that watch the movie. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including Brian Goodwin and Chris Shriver (art direction), Nelson Coates (production design), Andrew Baseman (set decorations), Mitchell Travers (costume designs) for the efforts in making such bold and appealing background setting for In the Heights. Who is also a part of this group is cinematographer Alice Brooks, which brings some of those more fantastic elements to life in really cool ways; adding a dramatic flair to the cinematic musical. Plus, I usually don’t mention this, but I think the film’s editing (not so much in the length of the movie, but rather the intercutting of various sequences) by Myron Kerstein is pretty good as well. Lastly, while the film’s musical numbers are the big highlight (as mentioned above), the film’s score, which was composed by Miranda as well as Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, is a solid musical composition that compliment the film’s numbers as well as those character driven moments.

There are some components that makes In the Heights feel a bit underwhelming in a few spots and drawing criticism. That’s not to say that these points give the feature a disappointing derailment aspect, but could’ve been trimmed or addressed in the overall execution or editing of the project. Perhaps the most apparent one is in the compression of the Broadway theater show into a cinematic movie. How so? Well, with a stage play usually running roughly three hours in length (divided into two acts), the translation from “stage to screen” can be a bit daunting and hard to file a narrative down into a feature film runtime. This somewhat happens in the movie, with In the Heights faltering in compressing its narrative reconstruction for a theatrical film and some things kind of feel like they got lost in translation. This is most apparent in the movie’s runtime, which clocks in at 143 minutes long (two hours and twenty-three minutes). Yes, that does seem quite long for a feature film and it comes off as that, especially towards the film’s third act, which could’ve been easily trimmed down in a few areas here and there. I know that there’s a lot of important stuff that happens during this part of the narrative, but it sort of drags on and on makes the film have a little overstay Because of this, the movie has a few pacing issues as well scenes that sort of lag and go off on a little bit of tangent; an opportune time to go for a “bathroom break” if you know what I mean. Additionally, the movie, without any prior knowledge of what it is, is quite predictable in nature as I easily guessed what was going to happen by the end during the first act. It’s still a good story (don’t get wrong), but a bit formulaic within multi-façade innerworkings of characters and songs with not a whole lot of surprises or twists to be had.

Also, the movie does feel a tad (and only a smidge) overhyped. Yes, as I mentioned that I did love it and appreciate its cinematography, story, character, and music. However, I felt that the project isn’t quite as stellar as I’ve seeing in other musicals. An example of this is in the film’s songs, which (again) are really good and energetic with Miranda’s modernization of showtunes, but nothing quite as memorable as other popular musical showtunes out there. In truth, none of the songs in the movie reach the same heightened excitement as several songs featured in Hamilton like “My Shot” or “Helpless” or “In the Room Where it Happened”. Overall, I think that In the Heights is definitely better than 2019’s Cats endeavor, but I would still prefer to watch 2020’s taped recording of the stage play of Hamilton over the cinematic project of In the Heights. I know both 2020’s Hamilton and this movie are a bit different in their representation, with one being a recorded version of the stage musical and the other being film adaptation of the musical, but I just felt the one is better than the other. Again, that is just a minor, minor quibble I have with the project and its mostly due to the overall source material of Miranda’s work rather than the actual cinematic presentation. Thus, I felt that In the Heights is extremely good, but not the “be-all-to-end-all” musical films out there……in both the Broadway stage or film adaptation. Just my opinion.

What helps overlook those minor criticisms points is within the film’s cast; finding the selection of acting talent to be quite impressive and solid across the board. Much like what I said earlier about how the movie embraces the Spanish / Latino community through its story, music, and influences, the cast of In the Heights is filled with them and brimming their cultural energy into the mix, with many (if not all) bringing their “A” game in their acting talents and energy to make their respective characters both colorful and memorable in their own right. Leading the charge and almost headlining the film is actor Anthony Ramos, who plays the film’s central character of Usnavi de la Vega. Ramos, known for his roles in Honest Thief, A Star is Born, and Hamilton, has made a name for himself, especially being part of the original cast of the Broadway run of Hamilton (playing the dual roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton). It was probably because of his participation in the Broadway show of Hamilton that Ramos tried out / won the lead role of the film adaptation of Miranda’s In the Heights and playing the film’s main character. To his credit, Ramos definitely succeeds in this regard and handles the role of Usnavi perfectly and masterful in his own way. The way he captures the personal journey that his character goes on is endearing to watch and how he interacts with the rest of the characters and the entire community of Washington Heights is almost infectious and it shows through his performance. Plus, with his singing is actually really good and does a great job in almost every song, especially in the film’s opening song “In the Heights”.

Perhaps the only downside, which is incredibly minor one at that, is that I kind wished that Miranda himself would’ve played the part of Usnavi, especially since he did play the part during the Broadway run of the play. This is especially noticeable during through many of Usnavi’s fast-talking singing / rapping parts, which Miranda can do greatly. However, Ramos handles those parts greatly as well. It’s just a shame that Miranda couldn’t play the role. Anyway, that’s more of a small complaint. Overall, I was greatly impressed with Ramos’s acting / singing in the movie and made Usnavi and very likeable and memorable character in the film.

The other two main characters (behind Usnavi) would have to be Nina Rosario and Vanessa Morales, who are played by singer Leslie Grace and actress Melissa Barrera respectfully. Grace, who has done singing and various music video shorts, is solid in the role of Nina; projecting the right amount of insecurities and conflict within her character’s situation. Nina is a complexed character, who is trying to hide your intentions about her college (in fear of what the community might think of her) as well as dealing with her proud father, and her relationship with Benny Like I said, its complexed character and Grace seems to handle the role quite well and makes her memorable. Plus, her song “Breathe” is beautiful and fully of emotion. In a similar fashion, Barrera, known for her roles in Vida, Siempre Tuya Acapulco, and Club de Cuervos, is terrific as Vanessa and (like Nina) gives a strong performance in the role. Her character is also complexed, with her struggling to find a footing in her passion and finding love with Usnavi. Together, but Nina and Vanessa are good strong characters in the movie and Grace and Morales are spot on in their roles. However, as a personal thought, I think that Morales is the more talented (singing-wise) of the two. Just my opinion.

In the supporting character roles, actress Olga Merediz (Saint George and The Place Beyond the Pines) does an exceptional job in her performances of Abuela Claudia, a resident in Washington Heights who adopts many of the young “dreamers” individuals and aids them on their journey. Merediz plays the part very well and makes the character of Abuela so quaint and endearing from start to finish. In addition, actors Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton and BlacKkKlansman) and Gregory Diaz IV (New Amsterdam and Vampires vs. the Bronx) turn some fine performances in the roles of Benny, Nina’s love interest and local dispatcher for her dad’s job, and Sonny, Usnavi’s cousins who works at his bodega. Of course, Hawkins is the better singer of the two, so the musical numbers that Benny sings are good. However, Diaz’s Sonny has more of a meatier substance in the character development and plays a part of Usnavi’s journey. Again, both are good in their respective roles. Lastly, actress Daphne Rubin-Vega (Wild Things and Hustling) is a truly a delight as the hair salon owner Daniela. She’s more of a side supporting character, but she plays the part so well and I loved in every scene she is in. Definitely made her mark on the movie!

The rest of the cast, including actor Jimmy Smits (NYDP Blue and Sons of Anarchy) as Nina’s dad Kevin Rosario, actor Mateo Gomez (Exposed and Law & Order) as family friend to Usnavi / attorney Alejandro, singer / actor Marc Anthony (Man on Fire and Hawthorne) as Sonny’s dad Gapo de la Vega, actress Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part) as Carla, actress Dascha Polanco (Orange is the New Black and Joy) as Cuca, actor Noah Catala (The Get Down) as Graffiti Pete, and Broadway show / actor Christopher Jackson (Hamilton and Bull) as the Mr. Softee truck driver, make up the supporting players in the movie. While most of these characters have minor roles in the movie as side-characters, most (if not all) still make a lasting impression in their respective roles; filling in the rest of the roster of Washington Heights community denizens that play in the film’s main storyline. Altogether, I liked them all and definitely a great supporting cast of minor characters that bolstered all the main cast as well as the film’s components (music, dancing, and story). Lastly, Lin-Manuel Miranda himself does make a cameo appearance in the movie as the Piragua vendor man, who gets a little song to sing in the story. I’ve always liked Miranda and his appearance / involvement in In the Heights (no matter how small) is a delightful treat.

FINAL THOUGHTS


What does sueñito mean?” is echoed throughout a story of various characters, who follow their own path in life, share their frustrations, and dream of a better life for them and their community in the movie In the Heights. Director Jon M. Cho latest film takes Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular Broadway show and translates it into a cinematic musical that is brimming with style, energy, and music. While the film falters a few times with its pacing, some characters, and overextending itself in its ending piece, the feature itself has plenty to like about, especially with Chu’s direction, a sensible Latino community and cultural, the visual presentation of the film, the dancing / choreography, the music / songs, and the solid acting from the cast across the board. Personally, I really liked this movie. Yes, I think 2020’s Hamilton was a little better, but this movie was still loads of fun with its energetic music and lively narrative throughout. I definitely can see why Miranda wanted to see this project be brought to the silver screen. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a “highly recommended” one, especially if you like musical, a fan of the Broadway show, or just looking for colorful tale of individuals making their mark on the world. In the end, In the Heights is beautiful and highly musical that delivers on Miranda’s flavor of style in a jubilant fanfare of culture, dancing, singing, and community within a visual cinematic centerpiece.

4.4 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)

 

Released On: June 10th, 2021
Reviewed On: June 30th, 2021

In the Heights  is 143 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive references

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