Review: In the Heights (2021)

Premiere Impressions

If you have not made a return to the movie theater yet, I cannot encourage you enough to shimmy your way into a seat for a screening of Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights. Yes, the film is also conveniently available on HBO Max right now, but In the Heights is the perfect return-to-the-theater film. The film’s show-stopping symphony of infectious musical numbers creates an energy that radiates off the big screen.

In the Heights, adapted from the Tony-winning stage production, centers on Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a New York City bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic where he grew up. Through his perspective, the audience meets the various characters of Washington Heights, each with their own dream and a deep-rooted love for their neighborhood.

As the center of the various narrative intersections, Ramos really proves his ability to carry a film. Ramos portrays Usnavi with vulnerability, presence, and slips in and out of rapping and singing with ease. Even more importantly, Ramos’s eyelashes flutter like the wings of a sacred angel and with each close-up, he stares into your soul and you just know everything is going to be okay. Olga Merediz, the only principal actor to reprise their respective role from the stage show, is the heart of the film as the neighborhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia. Merediz plays her role with careful restraint for much of the film, but when she gets her big musical numbers, she brings the house down. Other standout performances come from the “salon ladies,” Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela, Stephanie Beatriz as Carla, and Dascha Polanco as Cuca, who steal every scene they’re in. They all camp it up as larger-than-life salon queens and get some of the biggest laughs in the film.

Speaking of performances, the screen is electric with Chu’s musical number direction. He comfortably frames the large company’s choreography across the screen without relying on editing around the lead performers. “96,00” in particular, a number that is set in a community pool, is stunning. The movie shines brightest when it leans into the fantasy elements that the cinematic musical affords a stage adaptation. Colorful fabrics flowing through the sky, characters dancing on building walls, and dancing wig mannequins are just some of the highlights when the film embraces the fantastic. That being said, the movie does stumble occasionally, trying to create dynamic screen energy by having characters just walk briskly from place to place while they sing. It works the first couple of times, but after a while it’s like, “calm down, Aaron Sorkin.”

People like to hate on musicals because people are horrible, but In the Heights might just be the movie to convert some anti-musicalers. There are a couple of moments where the film winks at the audience to remind us that it knows it’s a silly musical, but it doesn’t need to. Those moments actually detract from the fact that the film doesn’t need to justify its musical existence—this story is crafted with such exuberance it only makes sense for the characters to burst into song.

Most significantly, the film is a celebration of communities of color, with an emphasis on the latinx community. Representationally, the film is lightyears ahead of most other contemporary American musicals. Thematically, the film skillfully weaves together many different thematic elements that could conceivably each center their own films (immigration politics, racial profiling and microaggressions, cultural disassociation) with empathy and understanding. The film also avoids relying on the “everyone has a dream” concept as a way to reinforce false American Dream mythologies. Instead, the film emphasizes the importance of community and togetherness as a way to find happiness.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • The “No Me Diga” number cleared my skin and filled out my application to cosmetology school.
  • Every character with significance gets a fun intro except Spray Paint Pete? He just shows up to spray paint and be Pete.
  • I do understand everyone wants to see Lin-Manuel Miranda, especially in an adaptation of his own creation, but there were an excessive number of close-ups on his cameo character.
  • It’s definitely ironic, and perhaps an omen, that this movie takes place around a blackout and my screening experienced a blackout twenty minutes into the movie.

The Final Tea

As someone who is passionate about cinematic musicals, it’s rare that I don’t find at least some joy in each new release. That being said, In the Heights is skillful enough to capture the attention of even the unconverted. The film is an absolute joy to experience on the big screen. Do yourself a favor and go to a theater to see it – you leave the cinema refreshed.


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