If you’re not familiar with In the Heights, it’s the musical that first brought Lin Manuel Miranda to the attention of all of the people who watch the Tonys. In 2008 it debuted on Broadway and, much like his later, better known play Hamilton, it managed to combine elements of traditional musicals with hip-hop. It tells the story of the mostly Hispanic neighborhood in the Bronx called Washington Heights which is slowly being gentrified out of existence. Miranda grew up in Inwood, which is the neighborhood right next to Washington Heights that also is part of the Little Dominican Republic. Miranda himself played the lead role of Usnavi on Broadway, but, being that 13 years have passed since then, the role wisely went to Anthony Ramos, who played the role later on, in this screen adaptation. Ramos, who grew up in Bushwick, another mostly-Hispanic neighborhood in New York, perfectly portrays the nostalgia for the old days when speaking as the “older” Usnavi that narrates the events of the film. Miranda plays the guy selling Piragua, which is basically a Puerto Rican snow-cone.
My assumption has always been that the “musical” parts of the film are derived from Usnavi’s memory being recolored by the rhythm of the streets he remembers, with the music encapsulating the spirit of the people who lived there. Usnavi, the owner of the local bodega, naturally sees everyone on their way to start their day. We’re introduced to them all at the beginning: Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the elderly matriarch of the neighborhood; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), the owner of a local dispatch company and whose daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace), is back from Stanford; Benny (Corey Hawkins), Kevin’s chief employee and Nina’s ex; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Usnavi’s crush; the “Salon ladies” Daniela, Carla, and (film-exclusive character) Cuca (Daphne Ruben-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco); and Usnavi’s cousin and sole employee Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). While Usnavi is the narrator, as the film’s title suggests, it’s a story about the neighborhood. I don’t know if it’s the New York setting or the fact that it takes place during a heat wave, but I often find myself comparing it a little to Do the Right Thing, in the sense that the main character is only there to give us an excuse to experience the entire community.
My opinion of director John M. Chu is a bit complicated. On the one hand, he did Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D, which are pretty decent dance films with terrible scripts. On the other hand, he did G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which was at least not as bad as the previous G.I. Joe movie but was still not good, and Jem and the Holograms, a movie that not only was terrible but went out of its way to hurt the fans of the series it was based on. Then came Crazy Rich Asians, which was flat-out great and well directed. So, going in, I was not sure if this was going to be a masterpiece or a trainwreck. Fortunately, start to finish, everything he did in this film works.
All of the changes from the original play work well (admittedly, it was usually described as having a weak book), all of the numbers are done bigger and bolder than they could be in a theater, and the added visual effects make us feel more deeply what the characters are going through and dreaming of. We also get a number of shots of local residents which both add a level of distinction from the stage show and also drive home that this is the story of a community and their dream more than any person. It does exactly what an adaptation should do: Furthers the themes, enhances the visuals without destroying the focus of the play, and shows you things bigger than what you could have gotten on stage. In short, it’s exactly the things that Cats and Les Miserables did wrong. Someone needs to tell Tom Hooper to watch this… or force him.
Overall, just a fantastic movie. Better on the big screen, but still great on the small one.
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