IN THE HEIGHTS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born), Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton), Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera (Vida), Olga Merediz (The Place Beyond the Pines), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Flawless), Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs The Bronx), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Dascha Polanco (Orange is the New Black), Jimmy Smits (Rogue One)

Director: John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians)

Writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes

Runtime: 2 hours 23 minutes

Release Date: 11th June (US, HBO Max), 18th June (UK)

Just when you think a genre might be on its last legs, it comes back swinging. The 2021 release schedule is packed with musicals from now until the end of the year: Everbody’s Talking About Jamie, Dear Evan Hansen, Tick, Tick…Boom!, Encanto, West Side Story, and probably a few more I’m forgetting. In the Heights is certainly one of the most anticipated of the slate and, whilst the show certainly has its loyal fans, to most it’s still “that other show Lin-Manuel Miranda made before Hamilton”. A film adaptation has been in the works for over a decade, but only truly got off the ground in the wake of Miranda’s catapult to superstardom, and is now finally here after a year’s delay due to a certain pandemic. Luckily, even though this is a story first told sixteen years ago, In the Heights feels more vibrant and relevant than ever as the first truly great blockbuster of 2021.

In the Heights (2021) - IMDb

Taking influence from the classic American musicals of the mid-twentieth century, In the Heights tells a relatable story with familiar themes of love, family and trying to make dreams come true, but through the specific lens of modern working-class Latinx and Black New Yorkers. Whilst there have been some major structural changes to the story from the stage version, as well as some updates and additions to make it timelier, it retains its essence and finds a perfect balance between a faithful adaptation and a movie in its own right. There are occasionally odd kinks and artifacts from the translation process, but never in a way that completely takes you out of the experience, with the pacing flowing so naturally that its lengthy runtime never feels like a problem. More than any other stage musical adaptation, it retains the energy and infectiousness of a live performance to the point it’s easy to forget that it’s a movie; at the end of the opening number, I nearly applauded and cheered before I remembered where I was. It may not be quite the same with limited screen capacities, and US viewers can easily watch it at home, but this is a movie that really needs to be seen in a cinema for the full effect. Hopefully, one day very soon, packed theatres can enjoy this film the way it feels like it should be.

In the Heights review: Lin-Manuel Miranda's vibrant musical dazzles on  screen |
(from left to right) Noah Catala as Graffiti Pete, Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, Corey Hawkins as Benny, and Anthony Ramos and Usnavi in IN THE HEIGHTS (2021, d. Jon M. Chu)

If you’ve ever had to sit through the average community theatre production, you’ll know that even the greatest musicals ever written are only as good as the actors performing in them, and thankfully In the Heights features an incredible cast packed with faces familiar, forgotten and fresh. I could just go on and on listing every cast member and using every superlative I know to describe how much I love them all, so I’ll try and stick to the major standouts. Anthony Ramos has been a rising star in supporting roles on stage and screen lately, but here as lead Usnavi he truly gets his chance to shine and captivates from the moment he steps onto screen. He is everything you want from a musical lead and more, and I hope Hollywood finally starts giving him the shots he deserves. Leslie Grace is a revelation as Nina in her feature film debut, and the way they’ve updated her storyline to reflect modern conversations about tokenism and microaggressions really gives her character extra pathos.

Jimmy Smits has never been better than here as Nina’s demanding father Kevin, and Daphne Rubin-Vega shows she absolutely still has it playing exuberant salon owner Daniela. Gregory Diaz IV is an incredibly charming young talent as Yusnavi’s cheeky cousin Sonny, and the extra depth afforded to his character here improves both his and Yusnavi’s storylines. However, the real show-stealer is Olga Merediz as neighbourhood matriarch Abuela Claudia. The only performer from the original Broadway show to reprise their role (though several other cast members return in smaller parts), it’s easy to fall in love with her like the entire cast has and her big tear-jerking number “Paciencia y Fe” is made that much better by her wonderful performance.

Visiting In the Heights – secrets we learned on the set of the upcoming  film | WhatsOnStage
(from left to right) Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, Stephanie Beatriz as Carla, Leslie Grace as Nina, Dascha Polanco as Cuca, and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela in IN THE HEIGHTS (2021, d. Jon M. Chu)

Watching In The Heights knowing the rest of his career, it’s easy to see the seeds planted here that sprouted into Miranda’s signature musical style, and all of the songs have that same infectious rhythm and masterful lyrical flow. It’s hard to really pick favourites because they all the numbers weave together so well that the whole production feels like one big song, but the opening title number, “96,000”, the aforementioned “Paciencia y Fe”, and “Carnaval del Barrio” are certainly the ones I’ll be playing over and over again on Spotify. Making these numbers truly shine in cinematic form is the fantastic direction and choreography, which brings to the screen that certain magic you usually only find in a live performance. Whilst this is his first musical, director Jon M. Chu’s experience with the Step Up franchise and concert films serve him well as he brings an authenticity rarely seen in stage musical adaptations; I personally now can’t wait to see how his adaptation of Wicked turns out. That same passion and flair then permeates the film’s entire aesthetic, bringing Washington Heights to life with a technicolour sheen whilst still capturing its authentic grit. The costumes, the sets, the editing, even the visual effects when the film breaks diegesis; all feel like extensions of Broadway style and tricks simply taking advantage of what cinema can do, rather than filmmakers attempting to force cinematic ideas on a show that wasn’t written for the screen.

How 'In the Heights' pulled off subway song 'Pacienda y Fe' - Los Angeles  Times
Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia in IN THE HEIGHTS (2021, d. Jon M. Chu)

After the disaster that was Cats, a lot of people began wondering whether turning Broadway shows into movies was worth it anymore; even the best ones could never really capture the genuineness of the original production. After watching In the Heights,it’s easy to see where all those other adaptations have gotten it wrong, and in doing so has delivered the best Broadway adaptation in decades. This is a movie that not only loves the original show, but understands why it was so special and knows exactly what to keep, what to change, what to expand upon, and what to drop; given the screenplay was written by the original playwright, that isn’t too surprising. It’s a movie I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, but musical theatre fanatics I think are going to be especially rabid for it. It’s going to instil in its audience a sweeping joy much like The Greatest Showman did, but it thankfully doesn’t have that fridge logic moment where it all falls apart when you think about it too much. In the Heights is a movie that not only stays with you after immediately after watching it, but will likely do so for years and years to come. If you’ve been waiting for a reason to return to your local cinema post-lockdown, this is the perfect movie to come back to. Bring your friends, bring your favourite snacks and beverages, and be ready to have a new soundtrack to play on repeat this summer.


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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