TL;DR – It captivates you in the first moments and never lets you go until the very end.
Post-Credit Scene – There may be a post-credit scene
Disclosure – I was invited to a press screening of this film.
In the Heights Review –
If there is one genre that has kind of disappeared from movie screens, it is the musical. Looking back, the last proper musical I saw on the big screen was The Greatest Showman. But something is exciting about being in a room full of people as the music and emotions wash over you. That moment when a song hits all the right notes, and you feel that emotion in your soul. Today, I get to add another entry onto this list with the sheer delight that is In the Heights.
So to set the scene, we open with Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) sitting on a beach telling a bunch of kids the story of the land of Washington Heights in the far off city of Nueva York. Here we see Usnavi go about his day, looking after his Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), opening up his bodega with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and striking out with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) while Sonny and his best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) watch on. But something is happening on the street today, Kevin Rosario’s (Jimmy Smits) daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) is coming back from Stanford, and everyone is ready for the celebration.
For a film like this to work, you need immediate buy into this world and the people singing their hearts out for the rest of the run time. This is helped by Usnavi being an immediate draw in the film with his passion and charisma. In those first few minutes, you will get to know the area through his eyes. You will see love, rejection, laughter and pain. We also get to see one of the main conflicts in the film, and that is a conflict of the heart. He is both the protagonist and the narrator, and he fits both roles with a passion you need in this role.
You get to meet so many characters throughout this ensemble piece, and all of them bring something different to the equation. Jimmy Smits brings that grounding and authority that you need in that role. Abuela Claudia is both the heart of the community and the heart of the film, and Olga Merediz draws you in no matter what scene she is in. Then there is the cousin Sonny that at first is just there as a foil but more and more takes the full focus of the film, and Gregory Diaz IV is there for it. Even some smaller roles like Stephanie Beatriz’s Carla make an immediate impression, and you want to see how it all plays out.
All of this is framed through song, which can be smaller songs with two or three people, huge ballad moments where one character gets to shine, all the way to full ensemble pieces with hundreds of people singing and dancing. If you have heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work before, you will feel that familiar intonation of punctuated bass while sapranos soar overhead. Of the many songs, the ones that I liked the best (that don’t head into big spoilers) were the big all-in moments. There was a delightful song inside a beauty parlour that has some of the best inanimate-object interaction in the film. Then there is the big set-piece around the local pool showing how funny this film can be at times and the entire spectacle of hundreds jumping (metaphorically and literally) into song.
But while there is a playfulness about the film and its focus on love and friendship, there is also depth. In the film’s opening, we see the role of gentrification and its impacts on communities. There is a pull on Usnavi’s heart about whether he should follow his dream or stay in the place he loves. Then there is pressure Nina faces from both her home and her university. As this works its way through the story, you feel that you are waiting for a penny to drop and when it does, it hits you like a sledgehammer, and just when you are reeling from that, the film gets the emotional two-by-four out and gets another couple of hits in.
Though I loved the film, there were a couple of issues that crept in. The first is in some of the songs. Lin-Manuel Miranda uses a style of music where you have people singing over each other, creating a wall of noise. Sometimes this can be an effective technique, and other times it just becomes frustrating. Also, because this is such a large ensemble cast, it takes a while to tie everything up in the third act, and it does start to drag in places. However, both of these issues are minor, and when they present themselves, thing usually moves on quickly.
In the end, do we recommend In the Heights? Absolutely and without hesitation. It is a film that captures the complete emotional spectrum, with people in the audience laughing, crying, jumping for joy, and sitting in shock. It also has a soundtrack that will live rent-free in my brain for years to come. If you liked In the Heights, I would also recommend Moana to you.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of In the Heights
Directed by – Jon M. Chu
Screenplay by – Quiara Alegría Hudes
Based on – In the Heights by Quiara Alegría Hudes & Lin-Manuel Miranda
Music by – Lin-Manuel Miranda
Cinematography by – Alice Brooks
Edited by – Myron Kerstein
Production/Distribution Companies – 5000 Broadway Productions, Barrio Grrrl! Productions, Likely Story, SGS Pictures, Warner Brothers & Universal.
Starring – Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Marc Anthony & Noah Catala
Rating – Australia: PG; Canada: PG; Germany: na; New Zealand: PG; United Kingdom: PG; United States: PG-13