In the Heights film review (2021)

As of now, In the Heights is the film of the summer, maybe even of the year. It’s a beautiful and relatable story about a neighborhood that’s more like one big, happy family, brought to life by incredible performances and some of the best musical numbers I’ve ever seen in any musical ever.

In a perfect world, we were supposed to see In the Heights last year. In some ways, it feels a year too late, but at the same time, it arrived just on time. Currently, things seems to be slowly returning back to normal and for many people, In the Heights may be one of the first films to welcome them back to the movie theater experience. As of right now, I can’t think of a better movie to see in a theater in 2021. As a matter of fact, I could’ve easily seen this on HBO Max, but I purposefully made the decision to see it on the big screen and I’m extremely glad I did.

I’ve been a massive fan of In the Heights since its Broadway days. Unfortunately, I never got to see it during its Broadway run, or on any stage, for that matter. However, I’ve listened to the soundtrack countless times throughout the years and it simply never gets old. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a masterful creator and performer. He has a natural gift of crafting emotionally engaging and compelling stories and this is, indeed, his baby. It’s the first piece of art that really put him on the map and some years later, it feels as if he’s only just beginning to scratch the surface of what he’s able to bring to the entertainment industry as a whole. He didn’t direct this film adaptation, technically, but I’m not sure Jon M. Chu, as talented as he is, would’ve been able to make this without him and having Lin alongside him is what really made this film succeed, in my opinion. It may very well be my favorite film of 2021 so far.

In the Heights tells the story of Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner in Washington Heights, New York who longs to eventually return to his home island, Dominican Republic, and is scraping up every last penny to do so. However, he wrestles with the fact he’ll be leaving everything he knows and everyone he loves behind.

The focal point of this film is the music. There were subtle changes to the overall soundtrack, including some of the music, slight changes to the lyrics and how it affects the story, and some songs were left out, while others were added. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed every single song in the film and it was a very nostalgic feeling seeing it all come to life in the film. Of course, these songs wouldn’t work without the artists who are performing these songs. Some standouts were Ramos, who’s the star, as Usnavi, as well as Corey Hawkins as Benny, Leslie Grace as Nina, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, and Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny. Everyone brought justice to these characters in different ways, while still taking inspiration from those who played these characters before them. Plus, it was phenomenal to see Lin portray Piraguero, as well as Olga Merediz reprising her role as Abuela Claudia.

I wish so much wasn’t changed about the story. I mean, for the most part, it’s the same story, but there are various details that are changed about specific characters, as well as what happens throughout the movie. But, for the most part, it’s a faithful adaptation. I just feel the story was told a bit better with the original play, which is usually the case in the situations like this. Then again, it’s a new time and with something like this, you have to cater to the society that’ll be watching the film. The stories and plot details told in the film are definitely more relevant for its time, but I still feel these circumstances they touch on were pretty relevant back when it came out. So, this was the only thing that truly bothered me just a bit.

In many ways, the film felt incredibly personal to me. Seeing how it takes place in New York, I remember going to visit my family there and the set pieces, seeing the blocks, the fire escapes, and the city skyline felt extremely nostalgic. It was almost as if I was revisiting memories all over again. Abuela Claudia, in many ways, reminded me of my late grandmother. How she adopted the entire neighborhood and welcomed everyone into her home with open arms. She was the heart and soul of this movie and I can see her getting some awards recognition when the time comes. Seeing others who live there sitting on the sidewalk playing dominoes and playing music, visiting the bodega store in the corner to get some sodas and chips, opening up the fire hydrant to get soaked, and so on also brought me back to my childhood. All of these things are things I’ve experienced first hand and none of it seemed fabricated or forced. It was all so natural. I loved everything about it.

The cinematography and editing is fantastic. Chu really captured the essence of what it felt like living in New York. I mean, I’ve never lived there, but I have been there a few times and I distinctly remember the feeling of those moments. He also adds his own flair to the film, making certain scenes and musical numbers stand out compared to others, even when the least popular songs are playing. Although I enjoy every song on the soundtrack, there will always be some that are better than others and even then, the scenes will have a certain style to them that’ll leave a lasting impression on you. There are few directors, I think, who understand how to deal with a film like this, and Chu is one of them. He just gets it.

It’s not only how everything looks either, but also how it makes you feel and how it’s conveying certain elements and themes. Lin is the first to introduce this sort of contemporary music style to Broadway, implementing different mixes of hip-hop, R&B, and Latin music, which is something similar to that of Hamilton. What some people don’t seem to realize is In the Heights did it first and, in many ways, I think it’s slightly superior to Hamilton, although it could be personal bias talking. This is the first musical I think many will enjoy, even those who aren’t high on musicals, because of the different sounds that many people are influenced by when it comes to their musical taste. Even outside of the music, it’s also the topics it touches on, the humorous scenes that make you laugh, and the feelings it portrays of never giving up when chasing your dreams in order to make a positive change in the world. It’s simply inspirational.

It’s a bit long, being a little under two and a half hours, but you never really feel it. From the very beginning, it’s a joyful and relatable story that simply breezes on by and you’ll enjoy every minute of it. Ultimately, it’s a tale about figuring out where you belong and coming to realize that it’s where you come from and those who are around you that really matter. With so much going on today, I think it’s a necessary watch to not only get your mind off of the daily struggles, trials, and tribulations, but to also put things into perspective. As mentioned, it’ll be hard for me to see another film that tops In the Heights this year. It’s arguably one of the best movie musicals I’ve ever seen and if you haven’t seen it, I promise it’ll be deeply moving and one you’ll relate to in more ways than one.

Score: A

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