Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day — In the Heights has arrived and this high energy love letter to the Latinx community quickly solidifies itself as one of the best musical adaptations in recent memory.
The film stars Anthony Ramos (who you might recognise as John Laurens in Hamilton) as Usnavi, a bodega owner struggling to keep his business afloat as a heatwave strikes the community of Washington Heights. Secretly in love with his neighbor Vanessa (Melissa Barrero), who’s working at the nearby salon while dreaming of getting out of town, Usnavi serves the people of Washington Heights with a whole lot of love, lottery tickets and cafe con leche.
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Meanwhile, his childhood friend Nina (Leslie Grace) returns to the barrio after her first year of college with a surprise for her parents and her eyes on Usnavi’s friend Benny. All guided by their honorary Abuela Claudia, the barrio is packed with characters that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.
John Chu’s direction translates the Broadway spectacle onto the screen with panache, with a brightness and warmth reminiscent of Crazy Rich Asians’ vibrant palette. The choreography is stunning, if a little flatter on-screen than on-stage. And while some scenes could’ve done with a more concise cut, the energy of the production propels the narrative forward.
Diehard fans of the musical will note some changes to songs and characters, but at this point that’s just to be expected — the day we see a movie adaptation entirely faithful to the theatrical production is, well, the day they stop making movie adaptations of theatrical productions.
If you weren’t well-versed in theater history you’d be forgiven for thinking that In the Heights functions as almost a spiritual successor or pastiche to Miranda’s wildly popular Hamilton. Both are themed around immigrants and the power of a dream, but where Hamilton had historical intrigue and a period vibe, In the Heights fervently wears its heart on its sleeve as a celebration of Latinx culture and a cross-section of family, faith and fate.
And sure, the rhythms and raps might feel familiar, but it’s worth remembering that In the Heights actually came first — the Tony Award-winning production debuted on Broadway back in 2008, so it preceded Hamilton by a fair few years. Lin Manuel Miranda has an undeniably consistent style, but at least that also means the quality is consistent too.
Familiar faces and sounds
Within the first few minutes you’ll be treated to a cheeky cameo that those in the know will recognize immediately — Lin Manuel Miranda himself, who originated the role of Usnavi, features as the Piragua Guy. You’ll notice a few more familiar faces if you pay attention, including an especially fun Orange Is The New Black and Brooklyn 99 moment in the salon — No Me Diga — and you’ll want to keep an ear out for the hold music for a not-so-subtle throwback to Hamilton.
Broadway fans will spot bass-voiced legend Patrick Page as the new tailor on the block, though it feels almost a waste not to hear him sing. Same goes for Christopher Jackson making a sneak appearance as the Piragua Guy’s rival, Mr Softee — it’s fun to see them, but when you have such powerhouse voices on the cast list, you want to hear them too.
But Anthony Ramos is easily the heart that keeps In the Heights moving. His musical talent keeps the energy of the movie high while his charisma and emotional depth carries the story through its lows. Olga Merediz is another standout, having originated the role of Abuela Claudia in the Broadway production. While the framing of one pivotal scene could be seen as a bit on the nose, her vocals and emotional resonance are crucial in delivering some of the film’s more intense points — nobody could’ve done it like her and, at least in my mind, it’s right that nobody else did. If Ramos is the heart, she’s the connective tissue that draws everyone together.
In the Heights has an emotional resonance that packs a punch. Between the choreographed twirls and fireworks, it’s an examination of wealth disparity, immigration, classism and the importance of culture. Beyond that, the film explores racial profiling, microaggressions and undocumentation with a candor that doesn’t feel forced or trite, and the timing couldn’t be more right.
In the Heights premiered in theaters and on streaming service HBO Max on June 10. Like previous big films released day-and-date in theater and on HBO Max, it’ll be available to stream for one month. That means you have until July 10 to watch it this time round — but don’t worry, after it’s released to rent or buy online and on Blu-ray and DVD, it’ll return to HBO Max in a few months.
Whether you’re lucky enough to see it in the cinema or you’re viewing it at home on HBO Max, you’re going to want the volume all the way up on this one — and maybe some room to dance along. Stick around for the post-credits scene and good luck not having the songs stuck in your head for the next few weeks.