'In the Heights' Movie Review: Lin-Manuel Miranda's Neighborhood

In the Heights feels like the best kind of movie musical. It’s faithful to the theatricality of the original Lin-Manuel Miranda stage show, but uses the medium of film to do things they can’t do on stage. You can feel the theatrical setup building to the music, the location and the characters in the pre-title sequence, but it flows without any act breaks. 

What is ‘In the Heights’’ about?

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) works at a convenience store in Washington Heights that his parents left him. He cares for Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) and pines for regular customer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Vanessa is applying for an apartment uptown, but can’t rent without credit even though she’s saved up enough cash for the first and last month’s rent. 

Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) runs a dispatch company that his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace)’s boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins) works for. Nina comes home from Stanford with bad news. She could get into Stanford, but her family still can’t afford tuition. All of these stories unfold through music. 

‘In the Heights’ soundtrack: Singin’ in the heatwave 

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote In the Heights and the most of the music is similar to Hamilton’s hip-hop style. Like Hamilton, Miranda also includes other musical styles, but in this case they’re all relevant to the neighborhood of Washington Heights. Grace is the first singer to diverge with a slowed down melody. There are touches of many Latin music styles throughout.

Usnavi’s introductory song is a spoken word rap during which his daily routine seamlessly becomes choreography. He’s stocking the shelves in rhythm but it doesn’t feel choreographed, even though it must be. Director John M. Chu first shows dancers in the street only in the reflection in the window of Usnavi’s store. Once Usnavi goes outsid, dancers extend down a New York street much bigger than the biggest Broadway stage. 

A number at a public pool has the biggest ensemble of chorus members, and most of the main cast is involved. When street vendor Piragua Guy (Miranda) sings “Keep Scraping By,” he also boards a tow truck and a bus. Hawkins and Grace’s closing number tops Fred Astaire’s ceiling dance with modern visual effects, and therefore also tops Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo’s Astaire homage. 

The story is universal and intimate

In the Heights weaves a story that gives everyone in its ensemble something to do, and sing about. The broad strokes are about contemplating moving on and presumably up, dealing with financial hardships and generational misunderstandings. It doesn’t presume to have any easy answers, but it proposes paths to change things for the better. 

The story involves some contrivances and coincidences that may be attributable to theater shorthand. Ultimately, the details that get characters from points A to B are less important. The big picture is about fighting systemic inequalities, and not letting the fight make you bitter and cynical. 

One aspect that’s refreshing for a musical is the relationship between Usnavi and Vanessa. Their courtship is a throughline for the film but it’s almost in the background of even their own individual stories. They’re not like Romeo and Juliet or Tony and Maria where they’re so intensely passionate that only bad things could happen to them. It’s a far more natural depiction of how two people awkwardly get to know each other. 

In the Heights invites all viewers to the party. Although it speaks to big pictures social issues, it’s also about these people who’ll be part of your neighborhood this summer. 

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