In the Heights
The adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda's first musical is a true cinematic triumph
Lin Manuel Miranda became a worldwide hit with his Broadway musical “Hamilton,” which is still, five years later, an impossible show to get tickets to. The multi-hyphenate has since made the jump to Hollywood, penning songs for Disney movies like Moana (2016) or even appearing in them such as in Mary Poppins Returns (2018). However, the American first burst onto the scene with the hit musical “In the Heights,” which eventually made it to Broadway in 2008. Given his stardom in Hollywood now, his first musical has been adapted into a film.
In the Heights (2021) is set in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. It is a community of disparate Latino immigrants who scrape by to earn a living. We follow the diverse stories of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) a bodega owner with dreams of returning to set up shop in the Dominican Republic, or Nina (Leslie Grace) a Stanford University freshman who is looking to get an immense pressure off of her, Vanessa (Melissa Barrero) works at the local salon, but wishes to move downtown and become a fashion designer, and Benny is a model employee at a car service locale, but hopes to become a successful businessman.
Lin Manuel Miranda’s original musical was groundbreaking in how it brought a new style of music to mainstream Broadway (that of rap) and how it brought forth the stories of the Latino-American community in an authentic way. For too long the only Hollywood/Broadway representation Latinos had was the “Romeo and Juliet” white-washed adaptation of West Side Story (1961), a remake of which is to come out later this year directed by Spielberg. Miranda was able to dig into his own life, having been born in Washington Heights, to depict the actual looks, sounds, and aura around his community; this is what made his story so appealing and a hit. With the screen adaptation coming from original book-writer Quiara Alegria Hudes, and Miranda returning for a small role and as a producer, the authenticity is maintained. The worry for some viewers had was how the stage limitations would be adapted into the cinematic medium by director John M. Chu.
Chu has been a wavering director, whose early career was bogged with the Step Up sequels, documentaries about Justin Bieber, the unwatchable G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), and the embarrassing financial flop Jem and the Holograms (2015). However, his helming of Crazy Rich Asians (2018), broke forth a new figure, whose timing and weaving of blockbuster and tactful scenes surprised viewers and made the romantic comedy a hit. Thus his next work with In the Heights, is even more impressive.
Chu brings an incredibly precise and inspired vision to his adaptation, with an incredible use of choreography, colors, and editing so that each dance number or song proves completely enrapturing. There are moments of true movie magic, like a couple dancing on the side of a building with gravity completely ignoring them, or a dance by the pool that will remind viewers of Golden Era Hollywood. Curiously, Chu’s work on such tepid studio fare such as the Step Up and G.I. Joe films, helped him hone his skills in dealing with complicated set-pieces, so that such scenes in In the Heights movie fluidly and appear effortless.
Chu, no doubt, draws heavy inspiration from Spike Lee’s milestone film Do The Right Thing (1989), in how the neighborhood is carefully sketched, and how previously relegated characters and stories are given dignity, electricity, and humor. In the Heights also brings forth one of the most realistic representations of New York ever in a mainstream film, which is long overdue as many of the romcoms and series set in the Big Apple had long portrayed what the city was like for 1% of residents, leaving out the actual flavor and magic of the metropolis. This In the Heights adaptation is also more politically bent than the original music version, with more focus of the story to be less on gentrification (as in the original) and more on the pressures of the US immigration system, high education costs, and racism. Yet it also retains the beauty and tragedy of holding on to a dream, no matter how difficult it may seem. In that sense, it proves to be a curious companion piece to Minari (2020) in how it views the actual “American Dream.”
The greatest strength In the Heights has, however, is bringing about the immigrant psyche with such clarity. For many immigrants, or children of immigrants an identity crisis can ensue, where you are no longer accepted as being part either from your country of origin, or your new home, and are stuck in a limbo of otherness. In the Heights brings this conflagration and confusion of national and cultural identity to the fore and puts forth the solution that many immigrant-adjacent people come to, that of creating your own mixed and individual identity, richer than any single country’s alone. Language becomes a mix of both (Spanglish), spiritual and cultural markers take on an added importance, and family and community lines become blurred as this perspective begins to weigh more than the color of one’s passport. This expert execution of the core emotional exploration of the film is no doubt reinforced by the creative forces behind the film coming from such backgrounds, whom no doubt went through their own identity crisis. It is such a nuanced and almost taboo subject that many immigrants go through, and yet is executed and explained beautifully in the film, bringing forth a relatability factor for those who have similar experiences, or an easy empathy to those who don’t.
Alegria Hudes and Chu are able to achieve the difficult balance of producing standout moments for each of their characters, giving In the Heights the right to call itself an ensemble piece. The film is perfectly cast, from the charismatic and nuanced Ramos to the magnetic Hawkins, and the anxiety encapsulated by Grace and Barrera. There is hardly a scene where you’re not swept away either by the lead performances, a magic dance, or some inspiring song.
In the Heights is a true triumph. It brings forth a complex story that is rarely explored in Hollywood to the fore, it does so with an incredible attention to character and plot, staving off of cliches, and infuses the entire affair with its array of enthralling numbers. Not only that, Chu manages to bring forth a vision of true cinematic proportions to make this film a true cinematic experience, that must be seen on the big screen.