Believe the hype, because “In The Heights” is a cinematic experience unlike any other. Sure you can experience it at home on HBO Max (where I watched it), but this one is meant for the theater going experience (where I’ll be headed to watch it again). “In The Heights” is based on the 2008 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, by “Hamilton” creator and “Moana” songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“In the Heights” was originally set to be adapted by Universal Pictures back in 2008, with Kenny Ortega (“High School Musical” trilogy) hired to direct. After his version fell through, the project was eventually started back up in 2016, with Lin Miranda set to co-produce with producer Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Company. A few months later, Jon M. Chu (“G.I. Joe Retaliation”, “Crazy Rich Asians”) came on board to direct the film adaptation. But in the aftermath of numerous sexual misconduct allegations made against Weinstein, his producer credit on the film was removed and the rights to the film were auctioned off to Warner Bros for $50 million. Warner Bros just one of several studios wanting to produce “In the Heights” due to the success of “Hamilton”.
It should first be known that, this isn’t “Hamilton” and you shouldn’t go in expecting that. Anthony Ramos, who is perfectly cast has taken over the lead role from Lin Miranda (who did it in his Broadway show). Ramos has leaped from the “Hamilton” stage to a rising screen career that includes Lady Gaga’s “A Star Is Born”. Ramos is Usnavi, a bodega owner in the Latin diaspora of Washington Heights. Usnavi has a dream of to one day leave the Heights and return to his father’s homeland in the Dominican Republic.
But he’s not the only one, as “In the Heights” also follows the best ensemble cast of the year that make up of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican backgrounds also looking for that better life. Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) is a hard worker at the dispatch company run by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), whose enterprising ways have been to support his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) as the first of their family to go to college.
Usnavi’s crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, also my new crush and who will be the next big star in Hollywood). Vanessa is an aspiring fashion designer who longs to leave her job as a nail tech and move to a better part of Manhattan. While all of these people have their individual dreams, they are united by the community matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who raised Usnavi like he was her own child and treated others much the same. All of their stories weave together seamlessly through the use of song and dance, with each character representing music from their place of origin. The cast here is excellent and over the course of a two hour and twenty nine minute runtime, we come to love these people and care about the characters so much that it’s impossible to not be invested in where they are headed.
Right from its opening number featuring the half-sung and half-rapped title track “In the Heights”. Director Jon M. Chu, cinematographer Alice Brooks and choreographer Christopher Scott make it clear how the film will play out. The depiction of these characters in it’s opening number make the spaces they occupy distinctly intimate, as the camera easily flows taking a peek at them in the crowded corners of the bodega, often through glass fridge doors or between it’s stoked shelves.
Jon M. Chu turns the Broadway stage’s two-dimensional backdrops into a glorious three-dimensional world and establishes the city’s lived in texture before letting its streets be engulfed by the dance numbers. The film even treats the sounds of the city as music, with honking vehicles and the spritzing of sidewalk water hoses layered into the films songs.
Chu is still riding high for his work in directing the best romantic comedy in the past decade with2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians”, but it’s his “Step Up” choreography that helps “In the Heights” the most. Chu was rightfully praised for his energetic routines of those cheesy teen dance dramas which most of us are too embarrassed to admit we liked. Chu and choreographer Christopher Scott makes every song and music number tell a different story, in a way that makes them all feel like a centerpiece of the film. Every song is infectious, it makes you stomp your feet, with every burst of color and it’s gravity defying performances.
There’s a lot of themes running through “In the Heights”, with it’s passion for the Latin history and culture. “In The Heights” showcases a shared history of a people who have endured and continue to endure great hardship and fights to overcome it. They have a fear that their history will be lost to gentrification or deportation as the immigration crisis lingers as a constant threat, however as “In The Heights” teaches us that nothing can stand against a community who stands together. It’s also about hopes, dreams and never giving up on your goals.
“In The Heights” never loses focus of both its story and characters. Lin Miranda and Jon M. Chu gives us a glorious throwback to the big screen Hollywood musicals that we saw in the heyday of MGM. “In The Heights” is well on its way to joining the great classic screen musicals. There have been a few blockbusters already in theaters, but there’s no better film to make a return to movie theaters than “In the Heights”. It’s also one of the liveliest, foot stomping and moving films you’re likely to see this year. One of the years absolute best and one of the best film experiences of my life. I loved every single minute, every single frame and it’s a film that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
GRADE: ★★★★★ (5 out of 5)