Review: IN THE HEIGHTS is Everything You've Been Waiting For

"In The Heights" premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on June 11, 2021.

By: Jun. 03, 2021
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Review: IN THE HEIGHTS is Everything You've Been Waiting For

I'm happy to report that "In The Heights" is the summer blockbuster we've anticipated from behind closed doors for the past year-and-change. A staggeringly joyful love letter to both Latin-American identity and the history of big-screen musical theatre adaptations, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' star-making stage show folds neatly into that grand, century-old tradition. If any movie pulls you out of your post-vaccine shell and back to the movie theater, let it be this one. I implore you to see it with an audience, in the same way you would see a production of the stage show.

With "Crazy Rich Asians" director Jon M. Chu at the helm, it's no surprise that "In The Heights" is full of visual creativity and vibrant color. What's so special about this film is not just the way it looks, however; it's the way it feels. A lot of modern movie musicals - even successful, entertaining ones - feel almost voyeuristic, capturing the image of big dance sequences and intimate 11-o-clock numbers without capturing their essence. Chu avoids that problem by using bodies as set pieces, using costume and color as props, and by integrating music seamlessly into the almost magical familiarity of Usnavi's block of Washington Heights.

"In The Heights" successfully synthesizes what works about the stage musical onto a big-screen format by simulating the liveness and immediacy of musical theatre instead of avoiding it for contemporary cinematic realism or grit. The worst movie musicals are almost embarrassed about their stage roots; "In The Heights" is big and bold, celebratory and unapologetic, and - most importantly - theatrical AND cinematic. Like "Mamma Mia!" or "Hairspray" or "West Side Story" before it, the candy-coated joy of "In The Heights" comes from the way Chu uses the medium of film to heighten, not condescend to, a story told best onstage.

It makes you really, really want to get back to the theatre.

The cast is uniformly wonderful. Anthony Ramos as leading man Usnavi is handsome and charming, with the proven charisma to lead any other film projects that come his way (though I hope he's always singing); golden-voiced Melissa Barrera makes a major impression as the confident fashion designer Vanessa; Corey Hawkins is an adorable Benny who sings and dances well; and I simply want Stephanie Beatriz (Carla) to be cast in every upcoming movie musical for the rest of time. Broadway mainstays Daphne Rubin-Vega (Daniela) and Olga Meridez (who also originated the role of Abuela Claudia on Broadway) shine in "Carnaval del Barrio" and "Paciencia y Fe," respectively.

I also want to specifically call out the vocal and dance ensembles, who build the neighborhood up to something undeniably spectacular and enormous; and I hope we see a lot more from Gregory Diaz IV, who got the most laughs in my screening by far as young activist Sonny. And, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson are major crowd pleasers in their cameo performances as Piragua Guy and Mr. Softee Guy. There is even a fun "Hamilton" reference thrown in that got a big laugh out of me.

I began to feel a little antsy towards the middle of the second act - not unlike the way you feel when a live musical is running a little bit longer than expected and you have a dinner reservation or something. But other than maybe 10 minutes that could have been shaved off the middle, and a framing device I'm not sure was necessary to anyone's comprehension or enjoyment, "In The Heights" is everything the theatre community needs and more at this moment. As the credits rolled (stay after for a post-credits scene!), I involuntarily let out a huge, deep breath - one I might have been holding in since "In The Heights" production was paused and the release date postponed indefinitely at the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. It's wonderful that "In The Heights" was actually worth the wait, patience, and faith.


"In The Heights" premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on June 11, 2021. Watch the trailer here:


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