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In the Heights (Movie Review)

REVIEW OVERVIEW

The Film

SUMMARY

A smash hit film adaptation of a ground-breaking hip-hop musical that tells the stories of some of the residents of the Dominican community of Washington Heights during a time when the neighborhood was changing. The numerous large group dance sequences are absolutely spectacular and elevate this film musical over its stage version.

In the Heights (2021) PosterOn June 10, 2021, the much-anticipated film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights was simultaneously released in movie theaters and on the HBO Max streaming network. The decision to cast Anthony Ramos as the main character, Usnavi de la Vega, was absolutely the right call as the young man who played this character in the 2018 Kennedy Center revival now appears more age-appropriate for this part than does Miranda, its original creator.

The film opens with bodega owner Usnavi telling stories from the Washington Heights Dominican community to four young children including his daughter Iris (Olivia Perez). He and his late father emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the Heights where the subsequent action takes place. Usnavi introduces us to some of the Heights’ residents: Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) who raised him; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) who runs a cab company and his assistant Benny (Corey Hawkins) who loves Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace); the salon’s gossip girls, owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), Cuca (Dascha Polanco); and fashion designer wannabe Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who wants to move downtown. Usnavi is secretly in love with Vanessa but, being insecure, he gets his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) who works in the bodega to act as his go-between.

The gifted Nina has dropped out of Stanford much to Kevin’s chagrin as he sold the cab business to pay for her tuition. Meanwhile, the relationship between her and Benny begins to blossom. Usnavi hits a rough patch with Vanessa at a nightclub just before a major blackout occurs.  A pivotal moment occurs when Sonny discovers that he has sold a lottery good worth $96,000, and everyone in the Heights wonders who is the lucky buyer.  It turns out to be Abuela who suddenly dies and has left the ticket for Usnavi. In a generous move, Usnavi decides not to use all of the lottery money to rebuild his father’s business in the Dominican Republic, but rather has the lawyer Alejandro (Mateo Gomez) use it to get Sonny’s green card.

Nina returns to Stanford to learn how to advocate for “Dreamers” like Sonny and Benny promises to keep their long-distance relationship alive.  Vanessa gets back with Usnavi and, inspired by the paint wipe rags of Graffiti Pete (Noah Catala), she creates a lively new fashion line. Usnavi decides to stay in the Heights with Vanessa as, together, they reopen the bodega. The ending returns us to the opening scene that shifts from a real beach to the bodega where Graffiti Pete’s mural recreates the sand and surf as the youngsters hear the end of Usnavi’s stories.

If there ever was a couple of hours to take our minds off the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, this high energy screen version of In the Heights absolutely brings it on! The screenplay by Quiara Alegria Hudes, co-creator of the original musical along with Miranda, captures the exhuberant energy that made its staged version so popular. In spite of new scenes that open and close this film, the basic story elements have been retained as have most of the musical numbers. Where the film outshines the staged version is in its spectacular dance sequences captured by Alice Brooks’s camera crew. Director Jon M.Chu’s well-paced direction makes the 143 running minute running time fly right by. While this cast is mostly new to Miranda’s musical (he takes a brief turn as the Piragua seller), there is not a weak link among them all of whom do their own singing. Viewers are given the element of ensemble performance that is the life blood of most musicals, and the large number of talented singers and dancers appear to be fully enjoying their time on the screen. Although mention of racial discrimination inevitably arises during this film, this is essential to render credibility to the numerous challenges faced by these immigrants at a time when Washington Heights was beginning to undergo gentrification. I predict that In the Heights will not only be the hit of the 2021 summer film season but, given what I saw and heard, will likely get Oscar buzz for 2022.  Highest recommendation.


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In the Heights is now available for viewing in numerous theaters and on HBO Max through July 11.


  • Rating Certificate: PG-13 (for some language and suggestive references)
  • Studios & Distributors: Warner Bros. | 5000 Broadway Productions | Likely Story | Scott Sanders Productions | HBO Max
  • Country: USA
  • Language: English | Spanish
  • Run Time: 143 Mins.
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
  • Director: Jon M. Chu
  • Written By: Quiara Alegria Hudes
  • Release Date: 10 June 2021
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