“In the Heights” has been a film on my radar all year as the last half-decade has really drawn me in to the world of cinematic musicals, whether they’re original or adapted. Based on the stage musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes (who also wrote the screenplay) and Lin-Manuel Miranda and directed by Jon M. Chu of “Crazy Rich Asians” fame, “In the Heights” follows a neighborhood of mostly Latino Americans who each are dreaming of better lives but feel stifled by a combination of cultural and incidental roadblocks of the American Dream. Although it didn’t make a splash at the box office (I’ll admit myself that my busy weekend forced me to turn to HBO Max to view it) “In the Heights” has earned both critical and audience praises on many levels and I’m here to say all that love is well deserved. “In the Heights” is an energetic, engaging and inspiring musical spectacle that is one of the best films of the year so far.
“In the Heights” primarily focuses on Anthony Ramos as Usnavi who is also telling the story as we view it. He describes his younger life in Washington Heights as he seeks to return to the Dominican Republic to revive his late father’s business. We also see other stories play out including Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) an aspiring fashion designer, college student Nina (Leslie Grace) who is struggling to afford staying in school, and Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) who has become part of a youth movement supporting Dreamers rights in the U.S. just to name a few. In total there’s probably seven or eight different character arcs explored in the film which could have, and maybe should have, made for a pretty chaotic collection of narratives that get in each other’s way. However, “In the Heights” is incredibly well-balanced putting sufficient focus on all of its characters’ journeys and revelations, the struggles that come with them and how they are resolved without leaving many stones unturned. The fast pace of the story combined with great direction and catchy music help prevent “In the Heights” from ever feeling bloated or boring and connect each story seamlessly to the larger themes of the film creating a delightful snapshot of a community trying to find the bright lights at the end of some pretty long tunnels.
There’s so much I enjoyed about this movie it’s hard to summarize it all in only a few paragraphs. The music first of all is excellent combining several different genres and styles that keep the energy up and the story moving with little rest. The entire soundtrack, save for one song, is taken right from the play with “Home All Summer” being the token original tune that all these musical adaptations usually include with hopes of an Oscar nod. As usual, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s infectious wordplay and literal storytelling through song feel like a pretty natural replacement for actual dialogue and every track fits well with the emotion and energy of the moment where they are placed. I found myself thoroughly enjoying every musical number which are all complimented by spot-on vocals and choreography with some fun visual flair and a mix of different genres to provide some variety, keeping things from getting stale. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the music and dancing translate well to film though as director Jon M. Chu is no stranger to bringing music-themed films to life having worked on projects like “Step Up 2” and “Step Up 3D” and two “Justin Bieber” movies. He also directed “Now You See Me 2” which contained some great visual flair that also translates in this film showing off all of the skills and tricks Chu has worked to prefect over the years. While he’s received some flack for certain casting choices in “Crazy Rich Asians”, that movie at its core was also one of cultural identity and Chu approaches this feature focusing on a culture not his own with the same sincerity.
What I really like about “In the Heights” the most is that it feels like the movie we needed at the time we really needed it. “In the Heights” is an optimistic film that’s not afraid to point the finger at some very real prejudices and roadblocks faced by the Latino community, or any community of immigrant origin for that matter that society often turns a blind eye too. While it does insinuate that the opportunities for the American Dream are not equal across the board no matter how hard someone works to get far in life, it also doesn’t deny hope that the dream is still alive and well for those who can break free and find meaning even in the simplest of ways. It’s also a film about community celebrating Latino heritage through this small, connected and close-knit neighborhood where everyone has commonalities and differences in their struggles, heritages and in blazing a path to a brighter future. “In the Heights” is a rare film that made me feel good not just about the story but about myself and my own ambitions and how far I’ve come after watching it, and I’m just a thirty-something white dude from New England. Imagine how this movie probably makes people who can truly relate to these characters on a more personal level feel? In a day and age where we feel more divided than ever, along comes a film with upbeat, optimistic music that reminds us that the sense of community and unity and that drive for a better life that every American used to share is still there and God is it beautiful if you just take the time to embrace it.
“In the Heights” is a spectacular adaptation of the Broadway play that I think everyone needs to see, especially right now. The music, the energy, the choreography, the performances, the well-handled stories, the diverse cast, and its inspiring themes and messages all come together to create one of the most enjoyable musical films I’ve seen since “La La Land” and one I just might see on the big screen after initially viewing it on HBO Max. I know a lot of people haven’t seen this movie either because they don’t have a thing for musicals, don’t know the source material or maybe for other personal more judgmental reasons I won’t vilify here, but in my opinion this is one of those movies that I truly hope benefits from the word of mouth because almost every aspect of this film had me completely engrossed from start to finish. That’s hard to do for nearly 2.5 hours even for movies I went in knowing I would like. Give “In the Heights” a chance. It’s completely worth it and, in my opinion, and absolute joy to experience. Please give this movie a chance if you haven’t already.