Review: 'In The Heights' is Rousing, Pulse-Pounding and Hypnotic

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday July 30, 2021

'In the Heights'
'In the Heights'  (Source:Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

When I saw "In the Heights" on Broadway in 2008, I was disappointed. Sure, I felt the joy and appreciated the message, but I found the book to be lacking in substance, and didn't love the songs overall. And I wasn't the biggest fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda's acting. When it went on to win the Tony over Stew's far more deserving, seminal musical, "Passing Strange," I was livid. So, when I was asked to review Miranda's newest show at the Public Theater in 2015 called "Hamilton," I easily declined. How was I to know...?

All the things I didn't like about the stage show vanished as I experienced the rousing, pulse-pounding, and hypnotic screen adaptation of "In the Heights," magnificently directed by Jon M. Chu ("Crazy Rich Asians"), who lovingly pays homage to a slew of movie musicals and slyly reinvents what the genre can do, raising the bar for future endeavors.

The creatives take great advantage of the visual medium, providing some stunning song-n-dance sequences and an abundance of show-stopping ensemble numbers, beginning with an opening that dazzles on every level while nicely introducing us to these dream-big characters that inhabit these particular "heights."

The story (penned by Quiara Alegría Hudes) is more character-driven and episodic than plot-oriented. First-gen Dominican-American Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) dreams of a future that takes him out of the daily bodega-running grind in Washington Heights, to a life where he can enjoy himself on a Dominican Republic beach. He sheepishly carries a torch for the antsy Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose dreams are bigger than the Heights. Meanwhile, distraught Stanford student Nina (Leslie Grace) has returned to the Heights, much to the chagrin of her father (Jimmy Smits). And Usnavi's cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), might be in danger of being deported. All the many Latino inhabitants look to Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) for advice and guidance in this close-knit community.

The original stage production could not have existed had it not been for the groundbreaking musical "Rent." Composer/lyricist Miranda owes much to the Jonathan Larson work. (A bunch of songs have been cut and others rearranged for the film, making the score stronger.)

The film instantly recalls a host of movies that "In the Heights" borrows liberally from including, "West Side Story," "Grease," and "Saturday Night Fever," as well as the films of Gene Kelly, Esther Williams, and Busby Berkeley. Chu loves his splashy musical numbers (literally splashy in a fab pool scene), but, in appropriating, he also finds new magic in numbers, from the bizarre (mannequin heads moving to the beat in the beauty salon) to the thrilling (a dance number choreographed on the side of a building) to the sublime (Abuela Claudia's "Paciencia y Fé," a tour de force).

There is so much that works about "In the Heights" that it overwhelms the fact that there are too many musical numbers that go on too long, often sounding the same and not furthering the plot (though they do add to a running time that could have easily been shorter by 20 minutes). But, for the most part, those segments are so infectiously thrilling you can forgive the lack of tightness.

And, of course, it's Diverse Storytelling 101 that pays too close attention to not offending anyone and that tries a bit too hard to be universal. The characters have too few flaws, but that's part of the old-fashioned-ness of the storytelling, I guess.

The musical moments cover a variety of styles, from hip-hop to Latin to pop and musical theater, and choreographer Christopher Scott works overtime to provide an explosion of movement and visual radiance onscreen. The camerawork (by Alice Brooks), editing (Myron Kerstein), and sound and music design are all beyond impressive.

Casting is key in an endeavor like this one, and the level of artistry is impressive. Ramos is the perfect leading man: Sympathetic, sexy, sweet, charming, and charismatic. Barrera is a find, stunning, intelligent and captivating. And Grace proves to have dramatic chops to match her singing skills.

A word about Daphne Rubin-Vega, who plays the spirited salon owner. Rubin-Vega was one of the very few original "Rent" cast members to not do the film version. It is an absolute treat to watch her every move here. This film is vindication for her, as she was a brilliant Mimi (in "Rent" onstage). It's thrilling that she gets to show off her talents in a film worthy of her fierce magnetism. She is particularly wonderful in "Carnaval del Barrio."

And then there's Merediz, the one major cast carryover from the original stage production (for which she received a Tony nomination). She imbues Abuela with a more subtle pain onscreen than we felt onstage. Bottom line: Merediz is the heart of the film, and she's looking at a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

"In the Heights" manages to work in important themes about immigration, discrimination, and assimilation. But it's ultimately a story about people trying to better themselves in a country that promised to help that dream along, but where the leaders seem to be doing all they can to hinder them. But with "patience and faith," perhaps dreams can come true. Perhaps.

"In the Heights" is available digitally today and on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD August 31.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute