In the Heights: A Broadway Adaptation Done Right

by Theo Sloan

Reviews

October 30, 2021

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 its 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 see it. By the time it left theaters, it had only made forty-three million dollars worldwide; besides Lin-Manuel Miranda’s being briefly Twitter-cancelled over some ridiculous nonsense, the movie didn’t receive much buzz online. As a result, when I finally got around to watching it, I didn’t really know what to expect. It is directed by John M. Chu, the director behind 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, which was very well-received at the time, and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself is attached as a writer, along with Quiara Alegría Hudes. It also stars 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. 

First off,  I’ll provide a brief summary of the movie, which I’m taking directly from IMDB: “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.”1 To provide a bit more context, the musical is a love letter to the New York City neighborhood Washington Heights, where Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up. It tackles themes of belonging and both individual and group culture.

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 their soundtracks, 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 such as Just Breathe or Paciencia y Fe, virtually every song in this film is fantastic. Not only is the music itself amazing, but 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, such as 96,000, Carnaval del Barrio, and Blackout, have choreography on a scale that feels like it matches the intensity and energy of the music and the medium that they’re being adapted to. And that’s all before we take the lyrics into account. Lin-Manuel Miranda has always been extremely gifted at intricate wordplay and complex rhymes. Here, 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 has evolved as he went from originally writing this in 2005 to the masterpiece that is the Hamilton soundtrack in 2015. 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 great enough that, besides the music, they’re 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 that Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, and Corey Hawkins were fantastic as Usnavi, Nina, and Benny, respectively, but don’t take that as my criticizing anyone else’s performance in this film, because everyone did a genuinely spectacular job. It should be illegal for so many people to be so good at both acting and singing and to have so much chemistry with each other. Even when In the Heights was doing things that I wasn’t a fan of, I found myself consistently impressed by the quality of every interaction.

The best qualities of In the Heights are its soundtrack, cinematography, choreography, and its characters, both with respect to their story arcs and to the actors who portray them.  While the overall story of the film is far from fantastic, it works very well alongside the songs and characters. Now let’s make a few critiques, because this movie is far from perfect.

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, but 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 humor falls flat. This is rather unfortunate, as the song is pretty important to the plot of the story. 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, because it’s a very fun movie overall, so the padded length isn’t too noticeable, but I definitely think it would hit a lot harder if it were between ten and fifteen minutes shorter. But that’s it for the negatives of this movie.

Overall, I really like In the Heights. It has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack, the actors all do a great job, and many of the musical sequences are very innovative and fun to watch. It also has some really great characters and a simple story that complements the music well, 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 really, 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. So instead of going to watch Dear Evan Hansen—which is worse than this movie in every possible way—or the second coming of Cats (2019) in theaters, stay at home, grab yourself a free trial of HBOMax, and watch In the Heights instead. I promise you’ll have a good time.

8.5/10


1 IMDB, “In the Heights,”
 https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1321510/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_7.

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