After listening to the soundtrack of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” for the past few years over and over again, the soundtrack of an earlier musical of his “In The Heights”, worked its way into my music recommendations. Whereas “Hamilton” was revolutionary in the way it portrayed mythic American figures like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, “In The Heights” feels more real and grounded, mostly because it’s a love letter to Washington Heights in New York City, where Miranda used to live. Indeed, especially with the release of the 2021 film adaptation of “In The Heights” — with the filmed version of “Hamilton” available on Disney Plus — it’s hard not to compare the two works that prominently feature Miranda’s unique style of songwriting that borrows from conventions of rap, though they are both excellent in their own ways.
“In the Heights” the 2021 film focuses on Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) a Dominican-American who owns a local bodega in Washington Heights that is central to the neighborhood. Both of his parents are dead, and he dreams of selling his bodega and moving back to the Dominican Republic to revive his late father’s business. He oversees his cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who works in the store with him, and it is from here that we meet notable members in the community that make up the cast, including “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), the neighborhood’s matriarch who had no kids of her own, but has taken in everyone from the block as her own; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), owner of the local taxi company, and whose daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace) is just returning after a semester at Stanford University; Benny (Corey Hawkins), Usnavi and Nina’s mutual friend who works for Nina’s dad; Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), Usnavi’s love interest who dreams of moving away from the Heights to become a fashion designer; and the salon ladies Daniella (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco). There’s even two hilarious Easter egg roles, as Miranda and Christopher Jackson (who also starred as George Washington in “Hamilton”) — who played Usnavi and Benny in the original Broadway production of “In the Heights” — have small roles respectively as an ice cream truck driver and a Piragua guy that hate each other.
The film is simply excellent, and is the best film adaptation of a musical I’ve seen in a long time, possibly ever. Miranda’s lyrics translate very well in this film, with the transition between normal dialogue scenes and musical numbers feeling effortless and seamless. The entire film has a constant energy that, while it often have its emotional dips and rises, feels continuous and smooth; at no point does it die, dead in its tracks, in order to set up something important.
My girlfriend is a second-generation Dominican American from New York City, who’s from a neighborhood in Harlem not far from the heights, and the film certainly comes off as authentic and fully-realized in regards to its portrayal of that part of New York City and the people that live in it. It feels like a meticulously-crafted love letter, and even if you’re not from that part of New York or even the region, you will probably be able to connect with it because it’s apparent that all those involved really cared about and loved the source material, something that’s not always the case with film adaptations, and it really makes the film stand out from soulless factory-made Hollywood films.
Ramos was an excellent choice for Usnavi, and he really makes the source material his; it doesn’t feel like he’s just regurgitating Miranda’s performance. And that can be said of all of the film, as fans of the musical will notice that some important characters and numbers have been cut (Nina’s mom, and my favorite number from the musical, Inutil, for instance), while others have been adapted and changed to make them more naturally fit into the world of the film. Some musical fans might not like some of the decisions the filmmakers made, which I get because they cut my favorite number, but I think most of the changes I noticed made the story work better as a film — though I really hope that we get a deleted scene in which Jimmy Smits sings Inutil (he actually did a great job singing in this despite not being known as a singer). “In the Heights” the film wasn’t afraid to kill its darlings, and I respect it for that.
Diaz IV, Merediz, Smits, Grace, Hawkins, Barrera and Rubin-Vega were also perfect casting choices, and they all deliver knockout performances. Almost every character has unique vulnerabilities and dreams, but they’re also part of this tightknit community that looks out for each other, meaning when something terrible happens to one character, they all feel it. Merediz and Grace have particularly strong performances, as they have perhaps the most emotional and vulnerable character arcs and numbers in the film, with Merediz’s Abuella having easily the best number in the whole film. Benny, Sonny, Mr. Rosario and Vanessa all have their own arcs in this film, though they serve key supporting roles in Usnavi and Nina’s stories, whereas Daniella and her salon ladies are side characters, though she is the driving force behind the film’s most energetic and fun numbers, Carnaval Del Barrio, that starts slow — and in the film, very rocky — but picks up some amazing energy.
It’s been a while since I saw the level of passion and love in a film that I saw in “In the Heights” (2021). See it in theaters if you’re fully-vaccinated. It’s worth it. This is a film where you want to take in the full scale of each number and the craftmanship of the music and sound design, and it’s also a gorgeous-looking film.
I’ve seen some bad takes online suggesting that this film’s underperformance at the box office is indicative of its niche fanbase, but I think it’s very clear that movie theaters are not at full strength just yet, as even “Godzilla vs. Kong” — a film that everyone holds up as evidence that movie theaters are back, underperformed (the film made over $400 million, but we all know that, had it came out in 2019 before COVID-19, it would have made $1 billion). It does lack name recognition, but I have a feeling awareness of the film will grow through word of mouth, because honestly, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a film this good in theaters or on streaming.
I’m not sure if I’m ready to call this a masterpiece, but it certainly is a master work, and a fantastic example of how to properly adapt anything for film. One thing I love and appreciate about this is that its filmmakers understood that theater and film are two different mediums and they weren’t afraid to make tough changes they knew might upset some fans, but would make this work as a film.
“In the Heights” (2021) is a fantastic experience that I’m glad I saw in theaters.
“In the Heights” (2021) gets a 9.5/10