Image courtesy of Playbill
By Garrett Farrell
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton and became the king of America’s theatre kids, he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University working on an 80-minute musical for the school’s student theatre company. A slightly altered version of this same musical would later be brought to Broadway as In The Heights. The show would earn Miranda his first Grammy, his first Tony, and a MacArthur Genius Grant, and it has now been adapted into a movie directed by Jon M. Chu.
The movie, simply put, is extraordinary.
It both delivers on the expectations of hardcore fans of the Broadway musical (such as myself) in spite of the fact that there were several noticeable changes to the show’s text and storyline, and doubles down on the themes of the show by updating it to reflect recent changes in America’s political landscape.
The movie takes place in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, which is a predominantly Latino community, and coincidentally the part of New York from which Miranda hails. The story centers around Usnavi, who owns the neighborhood bodega; his cousin, Sonny; Nina Rosario, a student coming home for the summer; her father Kevin, who owns the neighborhood car service; Benny, who works for Kevin; Vanessa Morales, an aspiring designer; and Abuela Claudia, who serves as the matriarch of the neighborhood.
While Usnavi acts as the narrator of the show, it is hard to pin down a single character who acts as THE lead of the story. Instead, the viewer gets unique experiences with each of the characters, all of which contribute to the show’s main theme: the concept of a sueñito, or little dream.
The movie opens with Usnavi on an island with a group of children asking him what this word means. When he gives them the simple definition that I just gave you, the children are upset that there is no story that goes along with this explanation, so to placate them Usnavi tells the story that makes up the movie.
I won’t go into too much detail about the events of the movie since the story is too complex, but I will say that the central theme is masterfully developed over the course of the movie, and the audience truly begins to understand what a sueñito is. When characters have to sacrifice their dreams, we feel their anguish; similarly, when characters have to sacrifice everything to achieve their dreams, we feel the difficulty of the decisions personally. When certain characters realize that they are the dreams of their community, we feel the weight on their shoulders.
While the movie has many merits, it is not without flaws. The large production numbers are well executed, but, as with almost any movie musical adapted from the stage, something is lost in translation. The movie avoids these issues for a time, but they are very prominent when the movie reaches the show-stopping number 96,000, as there are animations that distract from the excellent choreography of the scene.
In addition to these issues, some of the cast members are not extraordinary singers. The two roles where this is most apparent are Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Although both actors are less than impressive in musical numbers, each shines through in scenes where they don’t have to sing, which makes their vocal shortcomings forgivable.
Overall, In the Heights is an outstanding movie that brings everything that was great about the Broadway production to the big (or small) screen. In the Heights will be streaming on HBOMax until July 10.