In the Heights, the screen version of the highly successful Broadway musical written by Quira Alegria Hudes and Lin-Manuel Mirananda, is a very energetic film musical that should please audiences of the genre, largely due to its modern appeal and impressive dance choreography. The score by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alex Lacomoire, and Bill Sherman is affecting and memorable, the film should find it’s following and could find it’s audience through a strong word-of-mouth, despite the films underwhelming box-office numbers.
Now, finally in theaters and streaming on HBO MAX after being shelved for almost a year due to the pandemic, director Jon M. Chu’s (Crazy Rich Asians) is a very beloved and exciting film, despite an unnecessary running time and a few scenes that didn’t quite take resonate as much as they could have. Even with these shortcomings, In the Heights still offers a lot of joy and spectacle as the film promotes the power of dreaming for better opportunities.
The predecessor to Miranda’s Hamilton, even though directed by Chu–you can sense Miranda’s imprint on the cinematic adaptation. Staying faithful to the original subject matter, Quiara Alegria Hudes adapts the screenplay, and shot mostly in actual locales in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, In the Heights is dazzling, exuberant, and has a lot of potent things to say about class, race, and being marginalized without ever feeling too heavy-handed.
The film’s setting is in the fading neighborhood of Washington Heights, during a time before gentrification and real estate property grabs that benefit hipsters and the ultra-wealthy, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a small bodega in the neighborhood during a very hot summer that will eventually lead to a power outage. His young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Unsavi and Sonny interact with a lot of the locals that consists of a small business owner Kevin (Jimmy Smits) to a group of hair salon women to a young woman he’s very drawn to: Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), who has aspirations in working in fashion and clothing. There are a wide range of other colorful supporting characters in the film including Unsavi’s grandma (Olga Merediz), Kevin’s daughter named Nina (Leslie Grace) who’s returning from a major university, and a snow cone vendor Pirageuero (Miranda himself) who delivers a standout scene as he revivals against the ice cream truck.
Told through Usnavi’s narration from a beach bar in Caribbean, as he chronicles his experiences to a small group of children, who are all eager to learn about his adventures in the States. While the film is told through Usnavi’s perspective, we also get additional flashbacks, further insights into the characters, quick cuts, musical dialogue, and of course dazzling choreographed sequences that are energetic and far from jarring.
The film’s momentum is very swift, the music always jolting, merging the music with rap, sometimes it can be quite a task to keep up with the dialogue and narrative. The set-pieces are mostly sensational, the rhymes are very poetic and the film has a spirited momentum throughout; the film’s energy is the strongest suit, along with first-rate backup dancers. There are many exchanges in the film that resonate and slowdown, especially the scenes when Vanessa and Nina share prejudices they endured, or contemplate what they yearn for within their aspirations. Some of the strongest moments in the film involve the women characters, and their songs are some of the highlights of the material. Some of the songs are easily lip-synching and don’t hold up to the rest of the songs, making the overall delivery inconsistent, but all around still impressive.
All around this spectacle offers some empathetic modern commentary on being a dreamer or immigrant in the US as it’s a story about dreams, prosperity, freedom, love, and the use of the heat and the blackout works as a metaphor in the story’s dominant symbols. Like Moulin Rouge , the story and songs are integrated in the story, that movie together and built transitions in the building of the narrative yarn. In the film’s most impressive and innovative visual sequence, Abuela (Marediz) recollects her childhood journey from Havana to New York, in which Chu stages the sequence in and out of subways an platforms where the passengers transition into her Cuban friends and family and eventually into her racist employers as she emphasizes her work as a maid. It’s a brilliant sequence how Chu and Miranda blend the film medium with theater.
Ultimately, though, what makes the story uniquely sweeping is the first-rate cast, the impressive music renditions, and each actor excels in both song and dance. All around In the Heights is a warm-hearted and splendid experience that stays about 20 mins past it’s running time, but still a glorious experience and exuberant pleasure.