The award-winning musical In the Heights gets a film treatment with its original creators, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, working alongside director Jon M. Chu to create a beautifully envisioned piece of cinema that modifies the stage play for something more relevant to the times.
Set during a particularly hot summer, the musical follows a myriad cast of characters living in the Washington Heights of New York City.
Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), runs a bodega that serves as the hub for morning activity in his predominantly-Dominican neighborhood. He knows everything about everybody, and with the help of his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), he finally gets a date with the beautiful Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a hairdresser with fashion dreams.
De la Vega has his own dreams — to one day return to the place of his favorite memories, the Dominican Republic. Having lost his parents at a young age, Usnavi hopes to continue where his father left off by rebuilding the oceanside cafecito that now lies in ruins after the hurricane.
Narrating the story to his child and her friends, like a movie version of How I Met Your Mother where the narrator and his audience sit on a nice warm beach, Usnavi tells the story of the days leading up to a climactic power outage that takes out the entire neighborhood. The people’s resolve and ability to come together during a period of neglect, gentrification, and upheaval for DACA students (Dreamers), lead the individual characters in the story to see that moving forward doesn’t mean setting your past on fire.
In the Heights is beautiful, emotional, and and a sight to see as well as hear. Miranda’s music and lyrics carry the film with Hudes’ changes to the original story playing up the drama for more effect and raising the stakes.
In the stage musical, Sonny plays a smaller role and ultimately helps to convince his older cousin to stay after showing him that his home is in the neighborhood. For the film, Sonny is the child of a parent living in the country illegally. After Sonny attends a protest to advocate the reinstatement of DACA, he realizes what life could be like for Dreamers like him who would not be able to attend post-secondary school.
It’s a change that fits in perfectly with the story’s theme of people dreaming of a better life. While life in the Washington Heights isn’t perfect — the power outage takes days to fix, while it’s presumed the rest of New York City is fine — the expression of cultures and can-do attitudes of immigrants making the best, or worse, of the situation defines the basis of the material and makes it relatable to a huge demographic of America that has been blamed for everything, from taking jobs no one wants to committing more crimes than your average American, when the truth is actually the opposite.
The film acknowledges that America is a dream for those who were born outside of it or brought up in its barrios, and it posits that the future can change for the better if people are willing to help each other out.
Chu’s flair for getting the most of his scenes with dramatic visuals and Alice Brooks’ keen cinematography that keeps its focus on the essential things combine to elevate the movie’s visuals. Dancers overtake urban environments using the streets, buildings, and architecture as they would a stage. Where other musicals lose their ground, so to speak, as they’re taken from their stages to real-world locations, In the Heights incorporates the geography, bringing the Washington Heights and its inhabitants to life.
One of the highlights is the scene in which Nina (Leslie Grace) spends one of her last summer days with beau Benny (Corey Hawkins) before she returns to Stanford. As the pair begin to dance, the world turns on its side as the pair defy gravity to move gracefully on the walls of the building. The combination of choreography and cinematography is breathtaking, and it’s the kind of thing that movies were made for.
For fans of Miranda’s Hamilton, they’ll be delighted to see his trademark brand of storytelling lyrics delivered soulfully by the cast. Though Hamilton’s subject matter used more punch and swear-words for its American Revolution subject matter, In the Heights focuses more on the struggle of life with characters falling in and out of love, coming to terms with change, and seeing that one can be an instrument of development.
It wouldn’t be as strong without its cast, and Ramos leads the way with a sincerity and earnestness that’s raw and endearing. His singing and expressions keep his scenes grounded, and his interactions with the rest of the cast has so much chemistry, it oozes through the screen.
Olga Merediz, the movie’s Abuela Claudia, steals an entire chunk of the movie when the spotlight gives her the floor. Singing about her past and the reality of being an immigrant from Cuba — she takes a harsh look at the truth rather than just looking at the cherry-picked moments she’s held in her memories — Abuela Claudia has to decide whether to move on to Heaven or stay on Earth. Knowing that either decision will affect the ones she loves, she decides to move on, knowing it’s time for the next generation to take the baton and build a better place.
In her wake, she leaves a grand legacy and a final gift. Usnavi’s decision to take that gift and pay it forward brings the story to a place that will hopefully inspire us as we decide what kind of nation we want to build.
Is America still a dream or a reality?
It’s up to us to decide.
In the Heights (2021)
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay by: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Starring: Stephanie Beatriz, Anthony Ramos, lin-Manuel Miranda, Ariana Greenblatt, Jimmy Smits, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Chris Jackson, Dascha Polanco, Leslie Grace, Marc Anthony, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Olga Merediz, and Gregory Diaz IV