Review: In The Heights (2021)

Almost one year after it was set to be released, In the Heights is finally in cinemas where it was more like Carnaval del Cineworld. The Lin-Manuel Miranda musical was a hit on Broadway and the West End, winning four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and three Olivier Awards. This long-anticipated movie musical had Miranda fans buzzing to have this great musical revived for the silver screen when it was announced in 2019, myself included. 

In the Heights takes place in the NYC borough of Washington Heights. It is best described as a celebration of Latin American culture and takes you on a “flight to a couple days in the life of what it’s like in Washington Heights.” We follow Usnavi, played by Hamilton alumni Anthony Ramos. He is a small bodega owner who desperately wants to leave the neighbourhood and venture back to his home of the Dominican Republic to restart his late father’s dream. Instead of the story being directly told to the audience, like in the stage musical, Usnavi narrates the story to his daughter and her friends. Throughout the film, we are introduced to a plethora of characters from a tight-knit community who are struggling through the financial pressures of gentrification in the borough. Daniella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) has had to sell her salon due to rent increases, and Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), the local car services owner, has to debate the future of his business for his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) who struggles to afford and fit in at Stanford University. All of this, and more, combined create a beautiful story about celebrating family and culture whilst also touching on important political issues that often get overlooked.

The score, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alex Lacamoire, and Bill Sherman, is brilliant. They use influences of Latin music woven through rap and the classical musical theatre style. The music is quintessential Miranda, who was raised in the neighbourhood, and is clear he has a profound love for this small part of Manhattan. The title song ‘In the Heights’ serves as an encapsulating introduction to the neighbourhood and all its various residents. It is a great opening number for a show that is mostly ensemble-based, eclipsing into a dance break at the end of the number with the full cast. On the other end, ‘Breathe’ and ‘It Won’t Be Long Now’, performed incredibly by Nina and Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), are both beautiful ballads that capture the two women’s situations perfectly. The movie is packed full of energetic and colourful ensemble numbers which help to reinforce that theme of community and family that is so prevalent throughout. 

This version of In The Heights has restored my faith in the movie musical genre, as many recent attempts of converting stage to the screen have been complete flops. The direction by Jon M Chu brilliantly juxtaposes the realism of film and the theatricality of stage musicals. Chu was able to understand that in the theatre we know we are watching something that is not real and wildly obscure whereas, in film we are embraced by the story as if it is happening, he was able to do both. For example, the Les Mis movie failed to do this because they tried so hard to be incredibly realistic that it took away any sense of a musical. Letting actors butcher beautiful music. In this case, from massive rolls of fabric flying through the sky to dancing on the sides of buildings, Chu allows us to detach from the realism of the story as the emotions of the characters get too much that they must sing. On top of this, every single member of the cast possessed high energy throughout. Anthony Ramos revived the role of Usnavi perfectly and from the offset embraced the audience as if they were part of his community.

Whilst I was disappointed half of the original Broadway score was scrapped for the movie and one of my favourite characters removed completely, I understand sacrifices have to be made for a film. Unfortunately, they are not blessed with a 15-minute interval. I was excited that the movie allowed for the characters to have a fuller story behind them, we got to understand why Vanessa wanted to leave Washington Heights and a deeper insight into why Stanford was such an awful experience for Nina. However, I just wish they had delved into the relationship between salon owner Daniella and partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) as it was only merely hinted at that they were in a lesbian relationship and just seemed like an afterthought for inclusion. There was also a significant uproar on Twitter that there wasn’t enough Afro-Latinx representation in the film. Miranda apologised through a tweet, promising to do better. 

This joyous celebration of Latin culture, family, and community was expertly crafted through gorgeous music, stunning visuals, and impressive direction. It’s not perfect, but how could it be? Not everyone will ever be fully represented in one film but this one tried incredibly hard. Whilst it fell short of a few hurdles it still told the stories of immigrants and dreamers living in an age where rights can as easily be taken away as they are given. Miranda and Chu should crack open that bottle of cold champagne because they have created something beautiful that I am sure will live on for years to come.

Written by Arran Proctor

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