In the Heights: A Broadway Adaptation Done Right

In the Heights hit theatres last June. It’s an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical — also called In the Heights — and it’s reception was…lukewarm, at best. Although it received overwhelmingly positive reviews from both critics and audiences who went to see it, the unfortunate fact is that not many people did. By the time it left theatres, it had only made $43,000,000 world-wide, and besides Lin-Manuel Miranda being briefly Twitter-cancelled over some ridiculous nonsense, it didn’t receive much buzz online.

In the Heights’ Rotten Tomatoes approval rating. As you can see, it’s extremely positive.

As a result, when I finally got around to watch it, I didn’t really know what to expect. It was directed by John M. Chu, the brilliant director behind 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, which was very well-received, and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself was attached as a writer, along with Quiara Alegría Hudes. It also starred Anthony Ramos as the titular Usnavi, and I’ve loved him in basically everything he’s done. However, I was also very worried by the resounding “Meh” that this movie earned, both in terms of general excitement and box office performance. So, what did I think? Well, that’s what this review is all about, so without further ado, let’s get started.

A Brief Summary: So before we get into this, I figured I should provide a brief summary of the movie. This is taken directly from IMDB, so don’t give me any credit for this part. “A film version of the Broadway musical in which Usnavi, a sympathetic New York bodega owner, saves every penny every day as he imagines and sings about a better life.” To provide a bit more context, the musical is a love letter to the New York City neighborhood Washington Heights, which is where Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up. It tackles themes of belonging and both individual and group culture, and its characters reflect that. Alright, now let’s get started.

What I think worked: So In the Heights is, first and foremost, a musical, and I generally think that the most important thing for a musical to get right is its music. There are musicals out there that I don’t think have a good story, such as The Greatest Showman, but that I still really enjoy because of its soundtrack, and I think In the Heights has a genuinely fantastic soundtrack from beginning to end. From the fast-paced tracks, such as the opening number In the Heights and the full ensemble number 96,000, to a few of the quieter, more reflective moments like Just Breathe or Paciencia y Fe, virtually every song in this film is fantastic. And not only is the music itself amazing, the choreography is just as good, if not better. One thing that I really enjoy about In the Heights is that it takes advantage of its status as a movie. As a result, we get a lot of very interesting and well-executed camera work (When the Sun Goes Down was an absolute highlight in that regard), and the big, full cast numbers (96,000, Carnaval del Barrio, Blackout, etc.) have choreography on a scale that feels like it matches the intensity and energy of the music and the medium that it’s being adapted to.

And that’s all before you take the lyrics into account. Lin-Manuel Miranda has always been extremely gifted at intricate word-play and complex rhymes, and we once again get to see him bring all of his lyrical chops to the table, as well as some truly inspired genre-fusion that provides a window into how his musicality evolved as he transitioned from writing this into the masterpiece that is the Hamilton soundtrack. Overall, the music in In the Heights is everything you should expect from the man behind Hamilton, and the choreography gives it all the proper scope you should expect from a big-budget movie musical.

However, In the Heights isn’t just good from a music perspective. I think it tells a very nice story as well. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not mind-blowingly good or revolutionary or anything like that, it’s just a simple love story, with some heartfelt themes of culture and home woven in throughout. It’s not the most complex stuff, but I think it does a good job exploring its ideas in a unique and touching way. And I think a lot of why it works as well as it does is the cast of compelling characters at the center of the movie. They’re honestly great enough that, besides the music, they’re arguably the highlight of the movie. Not only are they brought to life by some very talented actors and actresses who all bring their absolute A Games to the film, but they’re also written very well and go through some rather compelling arcs throughout the movie. I particularly thought Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, and Corey Hawkins were fantastic as Usnavi, Nina, and Benny respectively, but don’t take that as me criticizing anyone’s performance in this film, because everyone did a genuinely spectacular job. Seriously, it should be illegal for this many people to be this good at both acting and singing, and to have this much chemistry with each other. Seriously, even when this movie was doing stuff that I wasn’t a fan of (and I’ll get to that in a minute), I found myself consistently impressed by the quality of the interactions between…well…everyone.

So to recap, In the Heights’ best qualities are its soundtrack, its cinematography and choreography, and its characters (both their arcs and the actors who portray them), and while the overall story of the film is far from fantastic, it works very well in the context of the songs and characters. Alright, let’s make a few critiques, because this movie is far from perfect.

What I think could have been better: One of the things that I immediately think of when looking at this movie’s flaws is the song No Me Diga. It takes place very early on in the movie, and not only do I skip it practically every time I listen to the soundtrack, I often find myself wanting to skip over it when rewatching the movie. While all of the singers do a very good job, I don’t think it’s very musically interesting, especially compared to the other songs in the soundtrack. The lyrics also feel very dated, and the humour falls flat. It’s rather unfortunate as well, because it’s pretty important to the plot of the story, but it’s just not very well done, and it’s an unfortunate bad patch in an otherwise excellent soundtrack. The only other song that really bothers me at all is Paragua, but that’s more because it’s very much filler, and despite being an alright listen and having an inventive sequence to go with it, it’s hard to ignore how pointless it feels.

And this brings me to my second complaint, which is that In the Heights is too long. This isn’t really the biggest deal in the world, because it’s a very fun movie overall, so you won’t feel the padded length too much, but I definitely think it would hit a lot harder if some of the excess fat was trimmed off, and it was between ten and fifteen minutes shorter. Yeah, that’s about it for the negatives. Let’s wrap this up and get to my final thoughts.

Final Thoughts: Overall, I really like In the Heights. It has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack, the actors all do a really great job, and a lot of the musical sequences are very innovative and fun to watch. It also has some really great characters, and a simple story that does a really good job complimenting the music, which is what a musical’s story needs to do at the end of the day. I highly recommend giving it a watch, especially if you’re a fan of musicals. But honestly, even if  you’re a musical skeptic, I’d still recommend giving this one a watch. If any movie has a chance to change your mind about the genre, this is it. The only way to find out is to give it a try. Seriously, watch this movie. I know that Dear Evan Hansen is currently in theatres and apparently some people like it for some incomprehensible reason, but I promise that this movie is better in every possible way. So instead of going to watch the second coming of Cats (2019) in the theatres, stay at home, grab yourself a free trial of HBOMax, and just watch In the Heights instead. I promise you’ll have a good time.

8.5/10

Written on 10/07/2021

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