Based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical, and directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, 2018), In the Heights takes you down to the streets of Washington Heights – where big dreams start. The narrative primarily follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a humble bodega owner saving every penny to set up a better life for himself, while those around him also express their own desires for a better future.
In the Heights really feels like it’s been ripped straight from the stage to the screen with hardly an adjustment in sight. It’s a visually stunning, joyous ride through the streets of Washington Heights – filled with great characters, engaging narratives and music to really get you on your feet. Each of the main characters has their own compelling journey in this story, and the film focuses on giving everyone their time in the spotlight. The early moments are successful in introducing the characters and getting you invested in what they’re trying to achieve for themselves and others. Then seeing each of those journeys play out is all the more engaging. What’s great is that none of these character arcs are dropped at any point in the film – everything is seen through to the end and there’s a great payoff for everyone.
All musical elements aside, this is a compelling narrative with romance, drama and comedy weaved throughout. Part of the charm is wanting to see how things turn out for these characters – whether they achieve their dreams or their dreams change over time. I mentioned that all of the characters are unique and interesting, but the most prominent character of them all is ‘the streets’. The neighbourhood in which everything takes place is so rich with life, that taking in the sights and sounds of the surroundings is essential to the experience. It’s these streets that link everyone’s journeys together and put you in the shoes of these very real communities. If you take this exact story and move it to a different setting, it just wouldn’t have the same impact. Besides… it’s called In the Heights for a reason.
In terms of the performances, In the Heights has a stacked cast – all of whom bring their A-game. Led by Anthony Ramos, he strikes early with likeable qualities and gets the audience on his side. He nails the musical moments, delivers his dialogue well and lights up the screen with charm. Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera all light up the screen whenever they show up. They all get their shining musical moments and inject a burst of electric chemistry into most, if not all, of their scenes. The rest of the supporting cast is too long to name here, but there’s not a single performance that detracted from the film. It’s a killer ensemble that could certainly be recognised come award season.
The music is the reason audiences show up, and it delivers in spades. If you’re a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s style of songwriting, then this is going to hit the right spot. The music is fiery, upbeat and will make you want to put on a show in the theatre. There’s a good mix of slower, more emotion-driven songs and the more extravagant set-piece songs everyone will be singing on the way out. As with any stellar musical, the lyrics do everything from telling the story and dictating what characters are feeling to just straight-up providing comedic entertainment. At least for the first act, it’s a constant run of hit song after hit song where each one rolls into the next – progressing the story very rapidly and getting through so much in so little time. These musical moments are accompanied by some spectacular choreography and staging, turning them into grand set-pieces. The dancing, stunt work and visuals all tie together to bring these sequences to life, making the most of being presented on the big screen.
The biggest reason why I loved everything in the first act, is also the reason why the second act didn’t really hit the mark. While watching the first act, it’s very easy to see how this was adapted from the stage. I could picture how these musical sequences would be presented on stage and which moments would be the huge wow-factor sequences. Basically, it felt like a stage musical that had been creatively and successfully adapted to film. After the incredible sequence that guides the story from the first act to the second, the entire atmosphere changed and it lost me. Rather than feeling like a stage musical translated to the screen, it just felt like I was watching a regular movie with a splash of music thrown in there. It lacked the sense of wonder associated with watching a stage musical and felt pretty flat. As I mentioned, the way the narratives wrap up in the second act is all well handled, it’s just the overall tone, presentation and lack of big musical numbers that left it feeling more “movie-like” as oppose to feeling like a musical. Others will feel differently, but the second act was a definite letdown.
In the end, In the Heights really does live up to the hype – delivering some stellar musical numbers with great choreography and beautiful cinematography. The narrative is engaging, with each character given their own arc and journey that spans the entire film, and it’s quite fast-moving – especially through the first act. This first act is where the vast majority of the thrills, laughs, big musical numbers and electric energy are in full effect. The second act doesn’t deliver on this, losing the essence of it being a musical and feeling more like the ending to a generic romantic drama. Despite the stumbling end, it’s still a wild ride full of fun, excitement and great, memorable songs. Any Lin-Manuel Miranda fan, or musical fan in general, is sure to love the work Jon M. Chu has put into getting this to work on screen.