The In The Heights Movie is 'Too Darn Hot'!
Last weekend the new film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights opened not only on the big screen, but for home viewing as well.
As a theatre nerd, I have waited so long for this movie because of how well-loved the stage musical is, and at this point in the pandemic, I was eager for the sweet relief of a movie-musical.
In The Heights did not disappoint.
As I mentioned, the film is an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The story captures three days in the life of the tightly knit community of Washington Heights, New York. Each inhabitant’s story is linked tightly to their dreams, and is told through Usnavi, owner of the local bodega.
The film adaptation is directed by Jon M. Chu, with a screenplay by Quiara Hudes, and of course features Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original score with a cast full of stars of stage and screen including Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz and Daphne Rubin-Vega.
This is something I would never say unless I didn’t mean it, but In The Heights is my favourite movie musical since Mamma Mia(2008).
Obviously, the source content is incredible.
Miranda has become one of the most prominent musical theatre voices of the decade, and for good reason. I would also say that Hudes is one of the best book writers of the same era, and combining their work is a recipe for brilliance.
That being said, most movie musicals have amazing source content and sometimes just don’t translate the same way on the big screen. However, In The Heights did, and I think a large part of that is due to director Jon M. Chu.
Chu’s direction is probably some of the best when it comes to adapting a stage show for screen, and he managed to use elements of both film and live theatre to create a film that does everything a musical should do.
One of my favourite things is how the movie navigates transitions, both into song and between scenes. In the world of stage performances, one makes allowances for bursting into song, and blackouts in between numbers and scenes, film makes this much more difficult. The film handles these moments in a way that feels simple to the viewer, though I’m sure is very complex behind the scenes.
This is one of the way movie musicals are very self-aware - there’s a layer of knowledge, almost an inside joke between viewers and the film, that this is a movie musical and to be prepared for spontaneous song and dance.
With In The Heights, no song or dance number felt premeditated, it simply came and went through the film very naturally, and I was very surprised by it’s gentle nuance.
The cinematography must be mentioned as well. It provided the intimacy for film and the spectacle of theatre, while showcasing the work and the actors presented it. I actually found myself thinking, “I love the camera angles in this!” over and over again!
Overall, I found it such a beautiful balance.
Speaking of spectacle, this film was filled to the brim with spectacular dance numbers! Christopher Scott’s choreography is mind-blowing! Just when I thought the bar had been raised too high, the next number knocked it right out of the park!
The use of dance and movement in this show is beyond comparison, and I loved how Scott took elements from daily life and incorporated them into heightened dance - because isn’t that what musical theatre dance really is?
I loved moments like the nail choreo in No Me Diga, and the use of different settings like a pool, a subway, the side of a building… My mind was blown!
It’s really hard to imagine picking a favourite, but the pool choreography for 96,000 is something I will probably watch over and over again.
Another thing I really enjoyed about the film was how it was cast. Once again it didn’t feel like classic “movie musical” casting, which is one of the biggest compliments I can give. I do love movie musicals and all that they are, but it was refreshing to see a cast of strong triple threats.
Picking highlights from these performances is tricky, but I’ll give it a go…
I really enjoyed Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, he’s charismatic, down-to-earth, and is so welcoming and easy to trust as the show’s narrator. The supporting cast of Corey Hawkins(Benny), Leslie Grace(Nina), Gregory Diaz IV(Sonny), and Melissa Barrera(Vanessa) are as strong as Ramos, and are as brilliant in the company as in their individual moments. Olga Merediz gives a heartfelt performance as Abuela Claudia, providing a warm centre to the piece.
And as a card-carrying theatre kid, I do have to mention the legend that is Daphne Rubin-Vega. She’s a force of nature, and it was so much fun to see her on screen as Daniela!
I’ve said before that In The Heights is a balancing act, like any musical, and this film does it so well.
This also applies to the themes of the show, as it handles those which are very real and difficult, as well as those that are heartwarming, while still leaving an audience feeling uplifted.
Heights leads with love, and is a perfectly written love letter to culture, country and community. The characters we meet are dealing with racism, microaggressions, and gentrification; and lean on their chosen family for support.
Immigration is a huge part of this story, and with that comes the theme of home, and what defines it.
My family has its own immigration story, and on one side, I’m the first one born in Canada. My family did come from Europe, and I am a white woman, so naturally our story doesn’t have difficulties like those faced by the character in this film simply because of that. That’s our privilege. I still saw so much to relate to, specifically in bringing your culture to a new country, and creating new traditions while maintaining old ones. There are two homes, and both are real and loved. So it becomes about bringing the best of each to where you are.
It is also a love story between a person and their dreams. Everything begins with a dream, and this film showcases the journey of chasing a dream, working hard to achieve it, and the bittersweet feeling when that dream finally does come true. It leaves the audience with the message that dreams can change, and that’s alright.
Before I wrap up this piece, I do need to take a minute to highlight a large topic of conversation regarding this film. Since its release, many viewers have pointed out the lack of diversity within the casting, specifically the lack of Afro-Latinx actors. This conversation focuses on colourism - mainly the fact that many of the actors working on the film were light skinned or white passing Latinx people, considering the neighbourhood in which the show is set has a large Afro-Latinx population.
Again, I am a white woman, I am very privileged to have rarely thought about seeing myself represented on stage and screen. I definitely agree that this film should have had more diversity in its casting. I also think that my voice may not be the one you need to hear on this topic, but I wanted to share a few articles that are helping me learn more and understand the complexities of colourism beyond this film.
The New York Times recently published this article, which speaks directly to colourism within In The Heights:
This is another article which speaks on the wider topic of colourism within the Latin American community:
If you are a member of the Afro-Latinx community and would like to share your thoughts on the colourism within In The Heights, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org , I would love to share this platform with you.
I thoroughly enjoyed every single minute of this film, and highly recommend it to everyone, whether or not you’re a musical theatre fan. The story is moving, the music is incredible, the dance sequences are fun, and it really does transport you directly into the piece.
In The Heights is beautifully crafted, well-presented, and will be enjoyed by your whole family as there truly is something for everyone.
You can still catch the film in select movie theatres (depending on COVID-19 restrictions) and is available online. I rented it for $25 on Amazon Prime!