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  • Jonny Diaz

'In the Heights' and On the Big Screen (Finally)

Warner Bros. Pictures

When Lin-Manuel Miranda's debut musical In the Heights opened on Broadway in 2008, it sent a jolt of electricity through the world of musical theatre. Wunderkind composer and lead performer Miranda was instantly hailed as a "singular new sensation" by the New York Times and walked away with a Grammy Award and an armful of Tonys long before Hamilton was even a tune in the back of his mind. But for a 17-year-old Latino theatre dork in the South Florida suburbs (i.e., me), In the Heights was nothing less than a supernova. So believe me when I tell you that I've spent the last 13 years in breathless anticipation, waiting through studio bankruptcies, rights disputes, and now a global pandemic for a film adaptation of my favorite contemporary musical.

Faced with those impossible expectations, almost nothing could have been worth the wait. But the film version of In the Heights is an ebullient love letter to New York City and an effervescent musical explosion that will blow the roof off your local megaplex. It's the perfect celebration to herald the exuberant return of the movies, but more than anything else, it's a bold assertion of Latinx identity unlike any previous big studio blockbuster.

Directed by John M. Chu from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the book for the stage version), In the Heights centers on Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young man running a bodega with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood as he dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. A thrilling opening number introduces the members of this tight-knit community whose sprawling stories we'll follow for the next two hours: Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns the taxi service across the street and is struggling to put his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) through college at Stanford; Benny (Corey Hawkins), a taxi dispatcher working for Kevin, one of the few non-Latinos in the neighborhood, and Nina's old flame; Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), Usnavi's long-term crush who aspires to move downtown to become a fashion designer; salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Vanessa's boss whose business is relocating to the Bronx after being priced out by gentrification; and Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the neighborhood matriarch.

If the cast list above feels long, well, it is (and there are even more I haven't mentioned, like Miranda's obligatory cameo as el Piragüero). But every character gets at least one standout moment, and they form a genuinely cohesive ensemble, effortlessly playing off each other and underscoring the film's themes of community and Latinidad.

Warner Bros. Pictures

And it certainly doesn't hurt that every performer is an honest-to-god triple threat. As the film's central character, Ramos makes good on the promise he showed in Hamilton; we already knew he could sing and dance with the best of them, but Heights gives him the runway to establish himself as a bona fide movie star. Likewise, Hawkins's charisma should come as no surprise to anyone who saw Straight Outta Compton, but his singing and dancing is perhaps the biggest revelation of the film. Relative newcomers Grace and Barrera are equally impressive in the musical sequences, and Grace ably carries much of the film's emotional weight—particularly in her scenes opposite Smits, giving what is maybe the performance of his career.

Heights may set up its four young leads for superstardom, but the real heart of the film is Abuela Claudia, played by stage veteran Olga Merediz reprising the role she played during the musical's entire Broadway run. Her showstopping solo number, "Paciencia y Fe," is the film's heartbreaking highlight: a time-traveling journey across borders and through subway cars that's a perfect synergy of character, performance, and direction.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Chu turns out to the be the perfect person to helm In the Heights. Building on his previously demonstrated strengths as a filmmaker—a musicality to his work in Step Up 2: The Streets and the big-budget scale and cultural specificity from Crazy Rich Asians—Chu takes those skills to the next level here. He keeps Heights moving at a syncopated rhythm, deftly managing the overlapping storylines and sprawling ensemble without losing sight of the film's central themes. His visual panache (including intermittent use of animated graphics) threatens to overtake the film at times, but overall it pairs with the musical elements to give the entire production a sense of magical realism, further deepening the symbolic power of this quintessentially Latinx story.

Hudes's script streamlines the stage play in numerous respects, tightening the focus in some ways, adding depth in others, and mercifully resisting the urge to add a new song just for Oscar consideration (that effort is wisely consigned to the end credits instead). The biggest changes are a political subplot focused on undocumented immigrants that is mostly well-integrated and a framing device that's largely unnecessary; for the most part the adaptation successfully amplifies the musical's strengths and softens some of its weaknesses. Sure, its heart is fully falling out of its sleeves (in classic Miranda fashion), but Chu mounts In the Heights on a large enough canvas that it can handle the earnest emotionality of the material.

Warner Bros. Pictures

The film's real strength, though, is its emotional and aesthetic authenticity. In an early scene, Abuela Claudia extols the importance of "asserting our dignity in small ways" through "little details that tell the world we are not invisible." Even with less deliberate hands at the helm, In the Heights would have been a high watermark for Latinx representation in a big budget studio film, but Chu, Miranda, and Hudes get those little details absolutely right. Everything from Spanglish ad-libs to the ropa vieja bubbling on Claudia's stove to the variety of espresso brands on Usnavi's bodega shelves is pitch perfect (the excellent production design is by Nelson Coates). And even more critically, the nuanced emotional dynamics—the inter-generational conflicts and the tension between dual homelands near and far— are drawn with equally thoughtful care.

For years, Latinos have made up a disproportionately large share of the theatergoing public, but with In the Heights, now, finally, we get to take center stage. It's not just a Latin-flavored Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians, it's a cultural landmark all our own. And it's about time.

In the Heights is in theaters now and on HBO Max until July 11.

1 Comment

Gary Murphy
Gary Murphy
Jun 11, 2021

Good review Jonny! I plan on watching it this weekend!

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