One of the biggest releases of the year so far is In the Heights. Based on the stage musical of the same name by Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights follows the community of Washington Heights, a Latin dominated neighbourhood where everyone has dreams and does everything they can to achieve them. The protagonist of the film is shop owner, Usnavi, who dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic one day and whose shop is hugely important to the community. As we explore the lives of those around him, we see the trials and tribulations that the Latin community faces against many issues including racism, increasing gentrification and basic human rights being compromised. The original stage musical first premiered in 2005 and went on Broadway in 2008, winning a slew of Tony’s and putting Lin-Manuel Miranda’s name on the map. The film is written by Quiara Alegría Hudes who also wrote the original book for the stage musical and directed by Jon M. Chu, In the Heights explores its subjects in a way that feels timeless and just as relevant today as it was back when it was first staged.
Although Hamilton may be the play that Miranda is known for among the masses, In the Heights was his first musical and was a huge success among theatre fans across the world. When listening to the music from both, it’s amazing to think that they were composed by the same man because of how different they are in style and tone. In the Heights is a celebration of Latin music, combining an array of cultural touches with contemporary US hip hop and rap. Each character has their own distinct type of song which gives the audience a sense of their personality. From Usnavi’s unpredictable raps to Nina’s lamenting ballads, each song sounds totally different from the other and yet it flows effortlessly. What is great about this film adaptation is that the songs have been rearranged and altered slightly to naturally fit in with the context of the film. A lot of musical film adaptations forget that film is an entirely different medium and it may not look static and unnatural. Due to the amount of rap and dialogue during the songs, alterations have been made to fit in properly with the medium and it makes it a more exciting watch as you don’t know what to expect. Some of the storylines had been changed as well to take away some negative events such as the looting of the store in order to give the film an overall positive vibe which allows it to work well as a feel-good summer film.
Anthony Ramos leads the film as Usnavi and has big shoes to fill (Miranda originated the role on Broadway) but does so with ease. Although we are getting a broad glimpse of life in Washington Heights, it is Usnavi’s storyline that chugs the film along so it was important to get the casting right. Ramos has more than proven himself capable having previously performed as Sonny on a previous regional tour as well as originating the role as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton in Hamilton. Ramos has a natural presence that makes his Usanvi instantly likeable. Even those who aren’t familiar with the musical will want to root for him and find out more.
In support, there is a great cast who help bring the beloved characters to life. Corey Hawkins and Olga Merediz as Benny and Abuela Claudia, respectively. Benny is Usnavi’s best friend who works in the local dispatch and is highly energetic with big dreams to become a successful businessman and someday run the dispatch himself. Hawkins brings that enthusiasm and charm needed as well as nailing the song “Benny’s Dispatch” which has a really difficult rap but he does this with ease. The friendship between Benny and Usnavi feels completely authentic and it’s clear that the actors had a great experience performing together. One of the original cast members on stage was Merediz who reprises her role as Abuela Claudia for the film. Claudia is the glue that holds the community together and her motto “Paciencia y Fe” is something that the community lives by, as well as being the name of her big number. The song follows Claudia’s life as a young girl from Cuba moving to New York with her mother and how they learned to adapt and survive in a completely different world. The sequence itself is beautifully directed and is one of the best numbers in the whole film. It is then followed by my personal favourite song, “Alabanza” which I think is one of the most beautiful songs in any musical and for the emotions of the song to come through, it relies on the influence of Claudia among the community and you’ll surely be in a lot of tears.
In the Heights is a phenomenal achievement that deserves to be shown on the big screen. Chu manages to replicate that vibrancy and spirit of the Washington Heights community and inject it with bold direction and stunning use of camerawork and colour. With a couple of Miranda related Easter eggs hidden in the film, it’s sure to be fun for theatre and film fans alike. A particular highlight is seeing Miranda play the role of Piragüero known fondly as the Piragua guy and his rivalry with the Mr. Softee Truck Driver who is played by Christopher Jackson (who originated the role of George Washington in Hamilton). Whether you are a fan of musicals or not, the story and its message are sure to resonate with you and leave an impact long after the credits have finished rolling.
What did you think about In the Heights? Let me know in the comments below!
In the Heights is available to view in cinemas now!