After the success of Lin Manuel Miranda’s behemoth Broadway hit Hamilton, there was finally interest to bring his first musical, In the Heights, out of development hell and to the big screen. I’m one of the few people who would say both musicals are equally great, and I don’t think I would say one is better than the other, because I enjoyed them both for different reasons. However, I am beyond happy we got Hamilton as a staged pro-shot, and In the Heights as a big, splashy, extravagant musical movie. In the Heights is the best film I’ve seen so far this year and it’s going to be very difficult to top this one.
Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) owns and runs everyone’s favorite corner bodega in the tight-knit New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, where everybody knows everybody and everyone’s got their own story and their own big dreams. Among them, we have Nina (Leslie Grace), who’s come back after her freshman year of college unsure of what her future holds. There’s also Benny (Corey Hawkins), Nina’s love interest and Usnavi’s friend who longs to own his own business.
There’s also Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco), who work at the local beauty salon, and also have dreams of moving to a bigger and better neighborhood. We also have Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an ambitious fashion designer who works with them until something better comes along, also Usnavi’s love interest. Finally, we have Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the neighborhood’s feisty, wise and proud matriarch, who helped raise many of the show’s characters. And while Usnavi observes the stories of the people he’s known his whole life, he ponders his next step and what it would mean to truly be happy.
In the Heights is an example of what can happen when a filmmaker completely understands the task at hand, and has a keen eye for making it the most it could possibly be. In the Heights is a total blast, and it succeeds where so many stage musical adaptations have failed because of the little details that give it incredible authenticity. You constantly feel like you’re watching a film by somebody who loves musicals, and isn’t trying to shy away from what the project is, which happens in most modern musical films. Even in the more quiet, dialogue-driven moments, nothing lands with a thud and it never feels like we’re just waiting around for the next musical number.
The entire cast here is fantastic, but it’s a huge ensemble and I’m going to talk about these people in the order they impressed me most, and it would feel wrong not to start this with Anthony Ramos. Ramos was hand-picked by Lin Manuel Miranda to take over the role he originated on stage, but has since aged out of. And honestly, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but Anthony Ramos in this role. He brings an endless charisma and so much heart to this character, and I firmly believe this is what will make him a full-on movie star.
Other standouts include Melissa Barrera, who I hadn’t seen in anything before. She’s got an extraordinary singing voice and a lot of natural charm. Vanessa’s character is somewhat expanded from the Broadway production, and Barrera makes you wish she had even more to do. Also, Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Daniela is truly fantastic. I knew Vega from the original Rent cast, but she was one of two original cast members not to reprise her role in the 2005 film. Turns out she dodged a bullet there. She’s got a tremendous screen presence, from Carla’s fun-loving, gossipy moments to where she has to be a leader, where she declares herself the person to bring the neighborhood out of its funk. She’s a delight to watch.
Leslie Grace makes her acting debut as Nina, and I think she’s quite good. Her singing voice is a little too pretty and breathy for some of the bigger belts, but it’s just a different kind of Nina than I’m used to. There’s a lot about her performance I think will really resonate with many people, and Grace almost seems even stronger in the character’s more quiet moments. Nina has fewer songs than she does onstage, but the film requires more of the character emotionally, and Grace totally pulls it off. Considering this is her first performance as an actress, I think she’s pretty fantastic. And her chemistry with Corey Hawkins’ Benny is totally lovely and heartfelt and culminates in that truly breathtaking dancing-on-the-side-of-the-building number you’ve seen in the trailer.
In the interest of saving the best for last, the film’s biggest highlight is someone who’s been with In the Heights since its inception, and that’s Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela Claudia. Claudia’s thing onstage is that she’s loud, full of energy and really sells it to the back of the house, especially in her signature number, Paciencia y Fe. That song is still a total showstopper here, but Merediz is giving an entirely different kind of performance than she did onstage, and she seems to fully understand what needs to be different and what’s more emotionally involving in a film. Movie Claudia is a soft-spoken, warm and unconditionally loving maternal figure for this entire block. The more time we spend with her character, there’s an overwhelming sense that she deserves her own movie. Remember Olga Merediz when Oscar season rolls around. You’ll be hearing her name a lot.
In the Heights features several changes from the source material that die-hard fans might initially find strange, but I promise every single thing works. Some story beats are moved around and some songs are rearranged or cut, but I don’t think the film short changes any characters. We certainly get enough time with everybody to understand who these people are and why their stories matter. That’s another thing non-musical fans might find challenging about this movie, it’s a bit on the long side, pushing two and a half hours, but I thought it absolutely flew by. It’s completely immersive and thrilling even when you’re sitting at home watching this on your couch. I can’t imagine what the experience will be like when seen the way this film was actually intended.
Which brings me to director Jon M. Chu. This is undoubtedly the best film of Chu’s career so far, and he’d be a great choice for the forthcoming Wicked movie if that’s still happening. In the Heights works so well, I think because of Chu’s vision for how these songs could become as cinematic as possible. It’s full of wonderful choreography and stunning musical set pieces. There’s nothing I like better in a musical movie than a scene where one person begins singing and by the end of the number, the whole town is singing and dancing along with them. This happens multiple times in this film.
For example, When the Sun Goes Down goes from small-scale duet to thrilling dance sequence in which our characters are defying the laws of gravity. Paciencia y Fe goes from show-stopping solo to still a show-stopping solo that instead takes us on a heartbreaking yet thrilling subway tour of Abuela Claudia’s past in 1940s New York. Carnaval del Barrio takes the point in act 2 where a lull threatens to happen and brings the energy up to an 11. And 96,000 becomes this glorious Busby Berkeley-type number set in the community swimming pool, and it’s probably the biggest of the film’s many showstoppers.
Chu must have felt an incredible responsibility to one, make a memorable musical movie, but also to illuminate the stories In the Heights tells, and to tell them with the honesty and authenticity they deserve. This is truly a film where you could point the camera anywhere, and have any of these characters be the primary focus, and you’d still have a deeply fascinating story. The representation of all kinds of Latinx stories are sure to resonate with so many who aren’t used to seeing their stories onscreen, and yet these stories are universal enough for this film to have the broadest appeal possible. In the Heights is a celebration of culture and the importance of community and honoring where you came from as you make your way to where you’re going. These songs and these stories are totally vibrant, full of love and hope and they’re ultimately life-affirming.
In the Heights takes Lin Manuel Miranda’s first musical that was originally produced in 2007 and turns it into something completely of the moment in 2021 and sacrifices none of the energy, authenticity, passion and overwhelming heart of that project, and turns it all up to an 11. It’s a great example of how viscerally exciting a properly made musical movie can be, and it gave me everything I possibly could have wanted from a film production of a beloved show. It’s a gorgeous, energetic, thrilling experience that takes advantage of the different medium and makes changes that benefit the overall narrative. In the Heights will be available in theaters and on HBO Max in mid-June, and this would be a great film to mark your return to movie theaters. It absolutely demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Do not watch this for the first time at home on your couch. I can’t wait to see this a hundred times on the big screen this summer.
See In the Heights in theaters starting June 11th.
I don’t think that I ever read a review that I barely finished, before I wanted to leave the house to see it wherever it might be playing locally. I think Matt will be my “go to” critic, before I make any decision to see a movie. He takes the time to really review a film. No more of these critics that expect me to trust their one or two sentence summations. Thanks, Matt!