Review: In the Heights

Before Hamilton, there was In the Heights. The film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s 2008 musical opened in movie theaters and HBO Max on June 10, and I have already watched it more than once. In the Heights tells the story of the community on a changing block in Washington Heights.

I vividly remember walking past the Richard Rogers Theater where In the Heights was playing in 2009. It remains one of my biggest Broadway regrets that I never got to see this show on Broadway, which is why I am so glad that it is finally a movie that I can enjoy whenever I want (at least until it stops streaming on HBO Max on July 11).

The story’s central character, Usnavi (played by Anthony Ramos in the movie), serves as sort of a narrator in the musical, but that role is even more solidified in the film. The film added a framing device where Usnavi is telling a group of young children the story of his Washington Heights community. He tells them that it is the story of a “block that was disappearing” and has them repeat the name “so it doesn’t disappear.” This added framing device tied the story together nicely, and also made the musical’s theme of legacy even more prominent.

There is also additional emphasis on the story’s theme about dreams. Usnavi narrates each character’s dream and talks about their relationship to their dreams, including that of Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), who has returned to Washington Heights after a difficult first year at Stanford. This is also highlighted in discussion of DACA and the threat in the Trump era that the Dreamers would be forced to leave the United States.

Ramos is so winning as Usnavi that it’s impossible not to root for him and his dream of restoring his father’s bar in the Dominican Republic. As aspiring fashion designer and Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa, Melissa Barrera shines in every scene she’s in. Her gorgeous voice soars on Vanessa’s “I want song,” “It Won’t Be Long Now.”

Another highlight of the movie is “Pacienca Y Fe,” sung by Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, the commmunity’s matriarch. Not only is Merediz’s performance emotional and powerful, but the visuals of the number are stunning as well. As Claudia tells the story of immigrating from Cuba to New York in 1943, dancers behind her transform from farm workers to Upper East Siders as they dance through a vintage Subway Car. There are also several stunning shots of the tunnel in the 191st Street Subway station. Merediz received a Tony nomination for her performance in the stage production, and I hope her work in the film is recognized as well.

There are so many fun cameos in In the Heights. Of course, one of the most obvious is Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Piragüero. It was so fun to see him in a battle with Christopher Jackson as Mr. Softee for the neighborhood’s business. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s parents also make a brief appearance, and many members of the In the Heights Broadway company appear in the movie’s finale. I also loved that there is a brief Hamilton reference in the film. (I won’t tell you what it is, but let me know if you found it!)

In the Heights is a beautifully shot film. There is a gorgeous shot in the opening number where viewers can see the reflection of dancers in Usnavi’s bodega window. In “When the Sun Goes Down,” Nina and Benny (her love interest played by Corey Hawkins) perform a beautiful dance along the side of an apartment building. Of course, it was also cool to see the George Washington Bridge behind Nina as she sings, “Just me and the GWB.”

I have been eagerly awaiting In the Heights since the film adapatation was first announced, and it does not disappoint. I highly recommend watching it on HBO Max or going to a movie theater to see it! You are pretty much guaranteed to have the music in your head and to be dancing along after seeing it!

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