Director: Jon M. Chu
Writers: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Everybody must know who Lin-Manuel Miranda is by now. The creator of the hit musical Hamilton has his name on just about everybody’s lips these days. Long before the phenomenon that is Hamilton, Miranda was but a simple musical-loving Puerto Rican growing up in New York City. Cut to college and meeting playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, Miranda’s first creation, In the Heights, premieres in 2005 and hits Broadway in 2007. Its success meant Miranda could turn his hand to other mainstream ventures, such as creating Hamilton, writing the music and lyrics for Bring It On: The Musical, writing songs for Disney’s Moana and popping up in cameos and full roles in television and film. But it all comes back around to that first successful run for In the Heights, which finally has its big-screen adaptation after more than ten years of faffing. Is it all that Miranda/Heights fans could want, or are we left unusually wanting more from Miranda?
Note – I have not seen the stage musical of In the Heights, so this review is purely from the perspective of the film.
Usnavi (Ramos), a young man from the Dominican Republic, is the owner of a bodega (convenience shop) in the NYC neighbourhood Washington Heights. He dreams of saving up enough money to buy his late father’s business back in the Dominican and returning to the place he grew up, where he felt happiest. Simultaneously, he finds himself enamoured with Vanessa (Barrera), an unrequited crush. Meanwhile, Nina (Grace), another familiar face in the Heights who managed to get into college and become the pride of the neighbourhood, has dropped out of Stanford, telling her father Kevin (Smit) that the deadline has passed for the next year’s tuition fees. She reconnects with old flame Benny (Hawkins), a friend of Usnavi and employee of Kevin’s. Alongside this we have Daniela (Rubin-Vega), who is moving her salon to the Bronx, much to the dismay of many of her regular clients; Sonny (Diaz IV), a young boy whose immigration status could threaten his future; and Abuela (grandmother) Claudia (Merediz), the matriarch of the neighbourhood who has taken them all under her caring wing.
Chances are you’re probably in the same position as me: you’ve never seen the stage show of In the Heights, but you’ve probably seen Hamilton. I’m not going to compare the two too much, as Hamilton (on Disney+) is a recording of the stage show rather than an adaptation and it wouldn’t be a fair comparison, but I will say that Miranda’s passion for words and rhythm and character is as apparent in Heights as it is in Hamilton. Every character serves a purpose and every lyric has meaning. It seems, judging from the perceptions of others who have seen both the stage show and film, that the story has been diluted a little and cut down into more easily digestible chunks (arguably), likely courtesy of Hudes’ story writing abilities. I couldn’t tell you if it does a disservice to the show or not, but again if you look at Hamilton’s recording it’s incredibly dense, and not to mention long, so it’s unsurprising that adapting Miranda’s work would mean some construction is necessary – or deconstruction, as it were. You can be sure Hamilton would face similar edits were it to be adapted for the big screen. It also means Heights is opened up to a wider audience, one that may not enjoy sitting for long periods that include an interval but instead prefer a big screen experience. It doesn’t make Miranda and Hudes’ work any less impactful, with blatant themes of race and wealth, family and love coming through with aplomb.
It’s notable that the first act is more song-heavy than the second or third, creating a clear divide between where the stage musical cuts off and the screen adaptation begins. This is no Lés Mis-style adaptation – songs give way to speech to give the brain enough time to rest from keeping up with Miranda’s hip-hop/Latino pace. Story-wise it’s not going to be relatable for everyone, but the same could be said of any film, and it doesn’t make it any less valid. The stories of immigrants and under-represented races might not be personally familiar, but I can guarantee you it will give you a view into something you may have never even realised was/is still happening the world over. Most people will likely be able to relate to the sense of community that is the glue keeping the story and the characters together, the title of the musical being the most prominant character of all. Giving the music a bolster is the incredible choreography that mixes all kinds of Latino rhythmic moves (salsa, samba, merengue) with the heat of an NYC summer, giving it the sexy sweaty vibes that often come with these kinds of performances, the kind that make you want to get up and join in. Wrap the story, music and choreography in wonderfully immersive production design and you’ve got something Miranda has probably been dreaming of seeing since his first inception of Heights, courtesy of Jon M. Chu’s ability to create real spectacle in his movies (see Crazy, Rich Asians).
To be annoying and mention Hamilton again, you may, if you’ve seen it, recognise Ramos from his performances as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton, originating both roles. Having worked closely with Miranda it comes as no surprise that he would be cast in the lead in Heights (with the original role of Usnavi played onstage by Miranda himself). Ramos brings a vulnerability to Usnavi, a trait that is subtle within the character’s strength and resolve to realise his dreams. Although Usnavi isn’t the character the stage show revolves around the most, Ramos proves his capabilities as a leading man in carrying much of the film’s soul. Barrera’s Vanessa is a little bland, a little monotonous, a little predictable – it’s possible her character wasn’t appropriately prepared for more time in front of the audience than she’s given onstage, but Barrera does her best with what she’s given. Separately, Hawkins’ Benny and Grace’s Nina are strong standing characters, but together they shine as the brightest couple in the film – their relationship is the one that has the most attention in the stage show, with part of that storyline revolving around Nina’s father not being happy with the fact his daughter is dating a Black man rather than a Latino – a shame that this wasn’t given screen time, as it would have been quite appropriate a theme to tackle considering the shift that society is currently trying to undergo. As previously mentioned, all characters are their own vertebrae in the backbone of the film – Rubin-Vega’s Daniela’s matriarchal strength; Beatriz’s Carla’s humour; Diaz IV’s Sonny’s coming-of-age journey – but special mention must be given to Merediz’s Abuela Claudia, a beautifully performed and written character who is the heart to Ramos’ soul of the film.
If musicals aren’t your thing (and I don’t mean the kind that give you a Disney-style ditty once every 10-15 minutes), then In the Heights might not be quite your kind of neighbourhood, but if it’s more than just a musical your after (poetry, even), then you really ought to give In the Heights a shot, particularly if you are a fan of Miranda’s style. The talent that goes into creating such a show is and has to be the cream of the crop, and we are given the most delicious cream from a perfect crop of writers and performers. You will be transported into a world that could be far from your own, where you will experience different cultures and life journeys. Or, if it’s familiar to you, I hope you feel represented and seen. If there’s anything Miranda can do and do well, it’s representing the under-represented. Fair enough Heights could have done a little better in its adaptation and inclusion, but overall it’s an entertaining yet important part of performance history that is a stepping stone for more representation and inclusion.