Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway megahit Hamilton established Miranda as an A-List talent across Hollywood. Since his phenomenal rise to stardom, Miranda has arguably attained the right of first refusal for any high-profile movie musical project. Still, after a series of high-profile Disney projects, Miranda decided to use some of his Hollywood capital to produce a movie adaptation of his pre-Hamilton Broadway hit In the Heights. Although it was a riskier choice than sticking with a proven brand, the movie adaptation of In the Heights proves that Miranda’s talent expands further than expected.
In the Heights tells the story of the residents of Washington Heights, an often-overlooked Spanish neighborhood in New York City. The ensemble cast, led by Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a first-generation immigrant with dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to honor his parents’ legacy. The residents of Washington Heights confront their personal identities in a community connected by its deep-rooted sense of family yet divided by conflicting aspirations. In the Heights is a beautiful, uplifting exposure for a community that fights to define itself by its vibrant and welcoming culture instead of its struggles.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and original songs inject the film with the culture of the neighborhood it represents. The mixture of Latinx culture with Miranda’s signature hip-hop writing style came close to replicating the magic of Hamilton but never quite reaches that level of brilliance. (I was a Hamilton fan long before knowing In the Heights existed, so it’s the original standard in my mind.) Still, after listening to the soundtrack a bit, the music does have the same catchy tunes and unforgettable one-liners that made Hamilton famous. Hamilton loyalists (like myself) will enjoy In the Heights’ soundtrack. Still, it is evident that Miranda gained plenty of experience after In the Heights, which puts it a clear step below Hamilton (at least with its soundtrack).
The entire cast nailed their roles, but no one particularly stands out, which embodies the only genuine critique of the film. The story is so spread out across so many characters that even its lead cannot break through the noise. The character that comes closest to a showstopping performance is Olga Merediz’s Abuela Claudia. Merediz originated the role on Broadway, and bringing her back was a great choice, especially seeing as she is the emotional lynchpin of the story. Every actor does their best to stand out, but the story is just too crowded to allow anyone character or performer to make their mark. The one exception is the musical performances. Every single actor in this film can sing, dance, and perform their way to the top of every casting director’s musical shortlist.
While Anthony Ramos does an incredible job with the material given to him, it’s not enough to avoid the obvious question of whether Lin-Manuel Miranda should have reprised his leading role instead of sidelining himself. Yes, Miranda did age out of the part a bit, but even in his limited scenes, Miranda pops a bit more on-screen than Ramos and would have been the perfect fit for Usnavi in his prime. As painful as it is to admit because his performance was still incredible, Ramos’ Usnavi feels like watching an understudy instead of the headlining star.
Director Jon Chu does a fantastic job capturing the beauty of Washington Heights, the neighborhood itself and the residents who make it up. Chu makes inventive choices for the musical sequences that elevate the film beyond the stereotypical movie musical. In the Heights, with its exceedingly grounded scale, settings, and characters, lends itself to the medium of a film more than most Broadway musicals. After watching the movie, it’s perplexing to imagine this story as a stage play.
In the Heights is a must-see for anyone even remotely interested. The soundtrack is sure to please musical fans, and the film itself is so uplifting and charming that it’s impossible not to enjoy. In the Heights is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.
Filmnetic Grade: A