To say that Lin-Manuel Miranda has been having a busy couple of years would be an understatement. After the smash success of Hamilton, he wrote songs for Moana and Mary Poppins Returns and will direct his first movie with Tick Tick Boom. Now he’s bringing the project that brought him on the map to the big screen, In the Heights. It’s been in development since 2011 at Universal until the project was canceled.
Eventually, Warner Bros. won the rights to the musical and a hard-fought bidding war. Luckily for us, the long wait for this movie is worth the wait as it’s one of the top movies of the year so far.
In the Heights is now playing in theatres and available on HBO Max until July 11.
Story: Skillful Translation to the Big Screen
In the Heights shows the daily life of what happens in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in New York City. We follow our main cast as they try and explore their dreams. Usnavi dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic. Benny wants to open his own business. Vanessa desires to move downtown and start her fashion career, and Nina wants to know her place in the world. They all go down a path that’ll leave them, and the block changed forever. The general structure follows the original show but thankfully, for this adaptation, they offered enough changes without ruining what made it great in the first place. The playwright for the musical, Quiara Alegría Hudes, returned to write for the movie and made enough adjustments to make it work. The changes help make the movie feel leaner and not too overstuffed. She even plays tricks on longtime fans by switching up plot points during Act 1 and saving them towards the ending.
The main themes from the musical are still present as the sense of community and maintaining your culture is still represented fantastically. We also get updated political references like DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and Dreamers in the USA that affect some of our characters. Even Nina’s story gets little layers added to it with the usage of microtransactions. Her story of dropping out from Stanford is because she felt like an outsider there, and the stories she told of this passive racism against her are heartbreaking to hear. What was already something that felt timely is now just as relevant as it was when it first premiered on the stage in 2005.
Characters & Performance: Pitch Perfect Ensemble
To say that this group of actors are great would be an understatement. Everyone hits their mark and helps make this experience a must-see. Anthony Ramos leads this cast as Usnavi, a bodega owner who saves his money to fulfill his dreams. He possesses this likable charm and energy that’s so magnetic while having this dorky side to him as well. It’s also nice that we get many unknown actors in the role instead of big names that would have been a distraction. There are so many standouts, including Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, and others should get the praise they deserve.
Then there’s Olga Merediz, who plays Claudia (Abuela), and she’s easily the standout. Abuela is the beating heart and moral center of the action. She helps others achieve their goals while reminding them of their roots. Merediz originated the role during the Broadway run and even got nominated for a Tony. Her acting is so good that she’s a very early nominee contender for Best Supporting Actress during award season.
Music & Sound: Get Ready for the Earworms
You know, when it’s a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, you’re going to have a lot of bangers. Every song hits perfectly, and there are honestly no duds in this lineup. There’s a wide mix of genres in play like salsa, merengue, hip-hop, rap, and others. We get a taste of all of it in the opening title song, “In the Heights,” which perfectly sets up Washington Heights and its people. After that, we get a lot of perfect character pieces.
There isn’t one number that doesn’t drag down the pace to a slow crawl. Even the short melodies by the Piragua Guy, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, offer some nice comic relief and reinforces this belief of community in Washington Block. The best songs are the ones that feature the whole cast, like “96,000.” It’s such a fun melody as everyone from the heights discover that someone won the lotto at Usnavi’s bodega. Once you finish the movie, get ready to listen to the album repeatedly because it’s that good.
Cinematography: Feel the Glow
Just like the music and tone of the movie, everything looks vibrant. The sun shining on Washington Heights with this golden energy makes it feel fantastical without feeling like a fantasy. The cinematographer, Alice Brooks, does a great job on this project and realizing she can take advantage of this being a movie, not a theatre show. You can get some amazing shots and show what the characters are feeling. When Usnavi sings, “Yeah, I’m a streetlight, chokin’ on the heat” in the opening number, his reflection is cast in the window while hundreds are dancing in the street at the same time.
The visual language conveys beauty and takes your breath away. There are many moments just like this sprinkled throughout that you need to experience for yourself. Speaking of dancing in the streets, the choreographer Christopher Scott knocks it out of the park. These big ensemble dance sequences are stunning. You can watch some of the background dancers and wonder how they do it so effortlessly. Anytime we see hundreds of people dancing to this amazing music, you can’t help but feel chills. They become set pieces as the visual language is displayed in the streets, the pool, and a great club scene that shows some great salsa dancing.
Editing & Pacing: Beat by Beat
The editing is simply tremendous as each shot matches up to the beat. It’s quick, but it doesn’t get to the point where it’s jarring. I love the quick shots we get of the people of Washington Heights in the songs. This shows how vast and proud this block is. Even with a long runtime of 2 hours and 23 minutes, the movie flows at a moderately good pace. Everything moves seamlessly from scene to scene as nothing felt like it was dragging until the ending.
At one point in the last 20 minutes, you think the film would be ending but instead keeps ongoing. Then you’re left spending the rest of your time wondering which scene will be the last, and it becomes a guessing game until you reach a conclusion.