I remember back in 2015, seeing the Australian premiere production of the Tony Award winning musical at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel by production company StageArt, a theatre company that has since been disbanded and sadly now no longer exists. I remember thoroughly being moved to tears when witnessing In The Heights on-stage for the first time, and having the need to return to see the musical again before its season ended.
Cut to 2021, after much rescheduling due to the global pandemic, the In The Heights movie musical, a story created from the strands of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s own childhood, is finally out in the world on film, and boy, was it worth the wait.
Director Jon M. Chu is no stranger to movies related to music and dance, but more importantly, In The Heights is not the first time that Chu has directed a film that puts people of colour in the spotlight and champions them, having previously directed the 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians. Both men are sons of immigrants themselves, and I guess it was only a matter of time before these two like-minded creatives, Lin-Manuel Miranda and John M. Chu would work together. And luckily for us, it’s on In The Heights.
In The Heights tells the story of the people in the immigrant-strong Latino neighbourhood of Washington Heights. Predominantly, the film follows the character of Usnavi, a bodega owner, played by Anthony Ramos who had previously played the role of Usnavi on-stage at the 2018 regional production of In The Heights at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. More known for his role in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other Tony Award winning musical Hamilton, I was incredibly excited to see Anthony Ramos play the leading role of Usnavi in this movie adaptation. Needless to say, his performance, the performance of the cast and this film did not disappoint.
The main theme of In The Heights is about having a dream, otherwise known in the film as a ‘sueñito’.
Usnavi’s dream is to find his way back home, always wanting to return to the Dominican Republic and re-start his late father’s business. For Benny (Corey Hawkins), his dreams are more romantically inclined, having affection for his boss’ daughter, Nina. Nina (Leslie Grace) is a little lost with her dream at present, returning to Washington Heights from a year interstate, studying at Stanford University in California. Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) previously had dreams of owning his own business, which have already come into fruition, however, his new dream lies in his daughter’s education and naturally wanting the best for his child’s future. The ladies at the salon, Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) have been working at the local salon for years but find themselves forced to move their business elsewhere due to the rent being too expensive. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is unsatisfied working at the hair salon, desiring to become a fashion designer and to move out of the neighbourhood. Last but not least, “Abuela” Claudia played by Olga Merediz, who originated the role in the Broadway production, is the matriarch of the barrio, who practically raised Usnavi and simply wants him and his cousin Sonny to lead a happy and better life.
The best part about In The Heights is that every main character has their own distinct storyline and obvious character growth. The neighbourhood feels real to viewers – because it is real. Filmed on-location in Washington Heights, the opening of the film even displays real people living and working in Washington Heights, which was a very clever and moving creative decision. This isn’t the only impressive creative choice that is made with the film. I was completely delighted by many changes that were happy surprises, but to witness the iconic number, ‘96,000’ performed in a colourful display at a public pool by the cast, yes, it may be staged differently in comparison to its theatre counterpart, but hey, it works and it’s just so damn good.
I understand that with many film adaptions, whether the original content be either book or musical, sometimes it is difficult to stay true to the story, for various reasons. But with In The Heights, the film not only stays true to the core of its original content, but it also makes progressive changes both socially and culturally, transforming the musical story into something that is not only updated and emotionally charged, but also powerful, highlighting current political topics that we need to have more conversations about.
Many people know of Lin-Manuel Miranda for his work on Hamilton, but without In The Heights, there would be no Hamilton. Of the two, In The Heights is the more relatable piece; a heartfelt story of community, friendship, love and family, where family is more than just being related by blood. This film is not only great for those new to In The Heights, but also for long-time fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work. There are plenty of cameos and easter eggs that will make even the biggest die-hard theatre fan and Lin-Manuel Miranda fan happy. Just make sure you stay until after the credits have rolled.
In The Heights is a wonderful celebration of life that is insanely empowering, contagiously inspiring, and is a joy to watch from start to finish. This is a must-see on the big screen – if I haven’t convinced you already. I know that I will be seeing this film again.