I originally learned about In the Heights while reading the behind the scenes book about the making of Hamilton that I bought last summer. If you weren’t aware, it was while In the Heights was running on Broadway that Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea for what would eventually become Hamilton, but I digress…because this review isn’t about Hamilton but In the Heights. And after seeing this film, I have to say that this story should NOT be known as “the musical Lin-Manuel Miranda did before Hamilton” because oh my GOD the story of In the Heights is just as good!
The story of In the Heights takes place over a span of 3 days, before, during, and after a blackout that paralyzes New York City (while it is similar to the infamous 2003 Blackout, most of the show was actually written in 1999). Our narrator throughout the story is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the owner of a corner bodega who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. Through Usnavi, we meet the varied characters who live and dream in Washington Heights. These include Vanessa, an aspiring fashion designer, Abuela, who has adopted the entire block as her family, Nina, who’s back in town from attending Stanford, Benny the cab dispatcher (and Nina’s would-be boyfriend), and Sonny, Usnavi’s younger cousin who helps him run the bodega. It’s a colorful cast of characters and I was quickly drawn into the story. I was actually worried going in that I would have a hard time connecting to the story but I should have known that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music would make it easy to dive right in.
To put it simply: if you loved the music of Hamilton, you will love the music of In the Heights. Like Hamilton, In the Heights is full of rap and freestyle melodies, though there’s obviously a Latin twist that doesn’t exist in Hamilton for obvious reasons. The music brings an entire culture to life throughout the story, and it’s so beautiful because this is a culture that’s full of life, passion, faith, and courage to go on in spite of facing huge obstacles in every direction. In fact, the community shown is so vibrant and so full of life, that it feels like you could just step right through the screen and be there with all of it, and I love a story where the world is this fully realized.
And oh yes, this story does not shy away from mentioning the obstacles people of color face on a daily basis. It’s mentioned several times by a number of characters that chasing dreams isn’t always easy, in fact it can be quite painful at times. And I like that the film makes it clear that sometimes you DON’T get your dream, even if you try. It’s a hard thing to hear of course, but it’s honest and I really like that because we’re still encouraged to go after our dreams, even if it hurts at times. And also, there’s a hint in the film that sometimes your “dream” isn’t what you think it is. That’s something I’m seeing more of in movies, but In the Heights does it really well.
What I wasn’t expecting was for In the Heights to make me cry but there’s one portion of this story that absolutely wrecked me. It all centers on “Paciencia y Fe” and “Alabanza” and the character of Abuela. I’m not the kind to readily cry in a movie theater, but the scenes with those two songs ripped at my heartstrings in a way that I didn’t expect going in.
I think my two favorite songs (that didn’t make me cry) were “In the Heights” and “96,000.” I like the opening song because it throws you in headfirst to the colorful world of Washington Heights and it was a really fun song to bop my head in rhythm with the music too. And I love “96,000” because it brought me back to my own childhood when I would go swim at the community rec center pool and everyone would be there.
I also love that Lin-Manuel Miranda appears in the film as the piragua vendor and there’s also a blink and you might miss it cameo from Christopher Jackson too.
What I’m trying to say is that In the Heights is absolutely the summer movie we’ve been waiting for. I laughed, I cried, it felt like an entire summer squeezed into a single film, all the good and bad. I know In the Heights is currently available on HBO Max but if your local movie theater is open, I highly recommend going to see this in theaters instead. It’s such a good experience and it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Let me know what you think about In the Heights in the comments below and have a great day!
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