“In the Heights” is the summer movie. With its bright colors and perfectly-choreographed musical numbers, the film embodies summer and warmth in a way that few other recent releases have.
Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, “In the Heights” follows the Latin-American community in Washington Heights as they go through their summer, chase their suenitos (dreams) and endure a blackout during the hottest days of the year.
All the characters have their own storylines, their own conflicts, their own suenitos. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, “Hamilton”) wants to go to the Dominican Republic, where his family emigrated from before he was born. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, “Vida”) is desperate to get out of the Heights and make it in the fashion industry. Benny (Corey Hawkins, “Straight Outta Compton”) hopes to keep his job and exceed others’ expectations of him. Nina (Leslie Grace, debut) yearns to find somewhere she belongs after feeling isolated and different from everyone else at Stanford University. Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, “Vampires vs. the Bronx”) wants to live his life freely. The magic of “In the Heights” is that all of these characters eventually get one step closer to achieving these dreams with the help of their friends and family. Interestingly enough, though, they don’t reach these dreams in the way that they had initially envisioned; rather, they achieve them in new, unexpected ways.
The film also finds a new method of exploring these dreams, with one big change from the musical. The story of the musical follows a winning lottery ticket that would offer new opportunities and a clean slate for whoever acquires it. In the film, though, the lottery ticket falls on the back burner. During a roundtable interview with the film’s talent, screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (“My America”) said she made this change because she didn’t want it to seem like “someone won the lottery, so all their problems were solved.” She continued, “I pushed the reveal of the lottery much later, and (the characters) had to solve their problems before then (and on their own).” Producer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”), who created and starred in the original musical, added, “It never was (a ticket that easily solved their problems) because $96,000 is $62,000 after taxes, and that’s enough to give you breathing room, but you’re not sitting pretty the rest of your life,” calling back to hit song “96,000.”
The film doesn’t follow the original Broadway musical note-for-note, containing a few changes to the plot, some modernization to fit 2021 and a cameo that genuinely made me scream out loud. Additionally, the film mentions particular social issues like the emotional consequences of stereotyping and the difficulties of being undocumented in the United States. Despite these differences, the film still flawlessly maintains its Broadway roots, aided by the inclusion of Olga Merediz (“Bull”), who played Abuela Claudia in both the film and in its original Broadway production.
Merediz explained the shift from stage to screen, saying, “As an artist, what you do is you do a project, you give your heart and soul. And when you’re done, you close that chapter and then you just move on. For this, I had to go back to when I did it on Broadway … I pieced (Abuela Claudia) back together … I was older, too, so I’ve grown as a person … so I added a little bit more maturity and depth to (the role). There are differences from doing it in the theater to the cinema. It was immersive.”
The fact of the matter is that this film will be thoroughly enjoyed by all viewers — fans of the musical and newcomers alike. It’s an important movie due to its focus on the Latin-American community but is also important because it’s so refreshing and new — even though the story was told on stage before. It’s the perfect film to usher people back into the theaters because the visuals and music make for a truly immersive experience, just as Merediz said.
“In the Heights” is a must-see. You’ll walk out of the theater feeling joyful and hopeful, which, after a hiatus from theaters, is a relatively new feeling. As soon as the credits roll, you’ll be waiting to see it again.
Daily Arts writer Sabriya Imami can be reached at email@example.com.