Based on the 2008 Tony Award winning musical with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, Moana, Mary Poppins Returns) and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes (Water by the Spoonful), In the Heights (2021) was directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, Now You See Me 2) and written by Quiara Alegría Hudes. In Washington Heights, N.Y., the scent of warm coffee hangs in the air just outside of the 181st St. subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies a vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is a likable and magnetic bodega owner, Usnavi de la Vega (played by Anthony Ramos) who hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.
As someone only somewhat familiar with the stage version of In the Heights as well as several of the songs, I will mostly be focusing on this film as its own thing, rather than looking at it as an adaptation and whether or not I feel the adaptive changes were fitting or hindered the story. With that being said, I think that this film was an absolute joy from start to finish. Not only because of the preexisting elements like the songs and story, but also because of the stellar direction from Jon M. Chu, cinematography from Alice Brooks (“Home Before Dark,” Emma), and editing from Myron Kerstein (Crazy Rich Asians, Garden State). From the opening number, titled “In the Heights” this film has such a frenetic, fast-paced, exciting energy. The film was also spectacularly shot. However, the editing was never too fast as to distract from the actual action of the scene or musical number. The direction and editing both worked in tandem to allow both the emotions of the scenes and characters to linger, while also allowing the audience to appreciate the set pieces and the choreography.
Speaking of, I thought that nearly every single musical number was so well made and had so much passion in front of and behind the camera that I already know I will be watching several of these musical numbers on their own. What also works about them is that these numbers do things that you probably couldn’t do or would have to imply on stage, taking advantage of the fact that this is a movie and not a stage musical. It makes way for some really fun set pieces and directing choices. A few numbers that stand out in this regard were “96,000” which takes place in a pool and had some incredibly great shots and choreography, “Paciencia y Fe” which all takes place in one character’s head, the opening number “In the Heights,” as well as “When the Sun Goes Down” which sees two characters dancing on the side of the building. “Blackout” and the club scene before it were also examples of the film being super well shot and flowing the scenes into the musical numbers quite well. The only musical number that seems to lack clear motivation from the characters and emotions was “Champagne.”
Without any spoilers, the framing device for the film was also extremely clever and played into the themes of the film, and once again took advantage of the fact that this is a film and not a stage play. The sound editing and mixing was also exceptional, allowing the actors’ personalities to come through in their rap and song solos without autotune. In terms of performances, Anthony Ramos (Hamilton, A Star is Born) was extremely charming and charismatic as Usnavi, making him easy to root for. Ramos brought so much pathos and fun and energy to the character that it actually made me wish the movie actually featured him more, and he’s the main character! One actor that surprised was Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs. the Bronx, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) as Sonny de la Vega. Not only was he able to bring this youthful enthusiasm and vulnerability to the character, but he also proved to be a great comedic relief with some wonderfully written and delivered one-liners.
Another performance standout was Olga Merediz (“Bull,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”). Not only was she a phenomenal singer, but she brought so much warmth and care to Abuela Claudia. One performance that fell a bit flat was Melissa Barrera (“Vida,” “Dos Veces Tú”) as Vanessa. She has a phenomenal singing voice and some great moments of emotional vulnerability, but needed more screen time to truly flesh out her character.
One of the biggest flaws with the movie is specifically between two characters, Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace). Both Hawkins and Grace were phenomenal in their respective roles and had pretty good chemistry, but her story was both underdeveloped and felt a bit too disconnected from Usnavi and his story. This is disappointing because I found Nina’s story especially to be super interesting, and proved to be a great antithesis to Usnavi’s story and character arc. Nina does not want to leave Washington Heights, but Usnavi does. And they hint at some really compelling drama between her and her father (played by Jimmy Smits). Unfortunately, limited screen time prevented this drama from fully playing out. Not only did the emotional confrontation between Nina and her father, even though both actors did a fantastic job, fall very flat, but there was also very little conflict with Benny’s character and he ultimately didn’t serve much of a purpose in the story. Despite the actor’s insane charisma as this character, his main conflict had to do with not being able to keep his job working for Nina’s father, but again, that conflict is resolved only about two thirds through the movie. And so the remainder of the film’s conflict is whether Benny or Nina will get together, an issue which lacks stakes high enough for viewers to get truly invested.
Verdict: 3.7 out of 5
Bursting with amazing energy, musical numbers, acting, editing, and direction, In the Heights (2021) is a loving tribute to Latino culture and Washington Heights that is only really bogged down by two prominent characters whose stories are a bit too disconnected from the main narrative and are lacking in conflict and stakes. Either way, In the Heights is an absolute joy from start to finish and a welcome start to what will hopefully be a joy filled summer.