In the Heights

In the Heights Delivers the Perfect Balance of Song-and-Dance Romance and Escapism

Dept. of Lin-Manuel's Melodies


In the Heights is finally here! John M. Chu’s bright and blustery adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multi-award-winning stage musical was first released back in June to rave reviews. It was an explosion of light and hope at a time when cinemas in the United States were just reopening, delivering the perfect balance of song-and-dance romance and escapism to a real world audience that was chomping at the bit to reclaim their long abandoned streets.

The story is an old one. Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi (a thinly veiled stand-in for Lin-Manuel), a bodega worker who yearns to return to his parents’ Dominican Republic homeland, but whose ties to Washington Heights are particularly difficult to break. As Usnavi narrates his immigrant dream, he also tells us the story of his community, of Vanessa, and Nina, and Kevin, and Benny. Because In the Heights isn’t just about Usnavi’s sueñito, it’s also very much about the little dreams of everyone on those sun soaked sidewalks of Washington Heights.

Como Siempre, Señor Usnavi

In the Heights

Bahir Yeusuff: Everything about In the Heights is immediately familiar if you’ve devoured Hamilton the way we have. Usnavi (great name with an even better origin story) feels very much like Alexander Hamilton. His best friend Benny (as played by Corey Hawkins) looks a lot like Leslie Odom Jr. (who played Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s confidante). And I might be grasping at straws here but In the Heights really does feel like a proto-Hamilton. Am I on to something or have I just seen Hamilton too many times?

Umapagan Ampikaipakan: I don’t think you’re wrong. Hamilton too was, in many ways, an immigrant story. He was, after all, “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean” who grew up to be “a hero and a scholar.” There are definitely parallels between the plight of the people we meet in Washington Heights and the life story of one of America’s founding fathers. Vanessa is “a self-starter.” Nina is “a lot smarter.” Benny works “a lot harder.” It’s all there. And I wouldn’t say it’s just a Lin-Manuel pre-occupation but a theme that is at the core of the American immigrant experience.

BY: And with John M. Chu’s big directorial style, In the Heights never feels like a pale comparison to Hamilton. I’m not sure if I would have felt the same watching a live taping of this, à la Hamilton or Come From Away, but the cinematic interpretation definitely made it very enjoyable.

Despite my earlier comment regarding the musical’s familiarity, I absolutely loved In the Heights. These are the sorts of musicals that I absolutely adore. All the dancing and upbeat Caribbean music, emotions of love and loss, of chasing and losing dreams, only to find them again. All of it just sings to me. I watched it, and then a couple of hours later immediately put it back on. I say I did it for research, but I lie. I just wanted an excuse to rewatch it.

In the Heights is a perfect marriage. This is an adaptation that leans into everything that cinema has to offer without sacrificing its stage sensibilities. John M. Chu’s start with the dance based Step Up movies really served him well here. He really understands how to shoot music and dance for film. My only regret is not being able to watch this on the biggest screen possible.

UA: I don’t know what the original stage musical was like, but this was massive. It was big and bright. It felt like every last inch of Washington Heights was on display here and all of it was enveloped by some of the most jaw dropping visuals. Chu blew this up. He took Lin-Manuel’s rhythms, all of that rap, and hip-hop, and salsa, and framed them in incredibly colourful and exciting ways. Yes, we’ve all seen a fire escape ballad before, and even a swimming pool shanty, but Chu doesn’t let the fact that this was once a stage musical limit his vision in any way shape or form.

I loved In the Heights for how boisterous it was. No, we didn’t get to see in on the biggest screen possible, but it was shot with such kinetic energy that I was completely immersed in it from the very first minute.

BY: I will go on record as saying that when Warner released the opening song on YouTube I felt a little disappointed. I thought it was too Hamilton in style. That first song, “In the Heights,” was very much a Lin-Manuel Miranda standard. It was very “Alexander Hamilton.” I know that the first song is always the set up. I know that it is used as a way to introduce the audience to the characters and the settings. But listening to that song, and watching that opening clip out of context from the rest of the movie, I got it very wrong.

Lin-Manuel’s lean into the Caribbean music styles is also just crack cocaine to me. All of that Latin music really got into me. The music is just so infectious.

Paciencia Y Fe

In the Heights

UA: I also feel it necessary to say that In the Heights just feels good to watch. It is a joyous time at the movies. Where West Side Story is rooted in conflict and drama, In the Heights is driven by love, and family, and sentiment. And while the musical is in no way frivolous (it takes on the rather heavy topics of discrimination, immigration, and gentrification), it feels like its most potent political point, especially now, is in how unapologetically hopeful it is for the future.

It’s hard being a citizen these days. Whether here in Malaysia, or over there in America. More so if you’re a minority. (Not that it’s ever been easy if you were a minority.) And so much contemporary fiction concerns itself with trying to reflect the reality of just how difficult (and occasionally hopeless) that is. In the Heights takes the opposite approach. By celebrating culture, by embracing difference, by calling out America’s shortcomings, but still acknowledging everything that makes it great, Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to find inspiration within the nuance. 

I know I’m tired of being angry all the time, and this movie reminded me that there are other ways to get motivated. 

BY: What were some of your favorite sequences?

UA: I know it’s the obvious choice, but the way Chu shot and framed that blackout was incredible. The pacing. The lighting. They way everyone’s individual stories started coming together. I was on the edge of my seat. (And the swimming pool number was pretty great too!)

What about you? 

BY: I can’t settle on just one so I’ve got a top three. The first is “Breathe,” Nina Rosario’s heartbreaking admission of defeat in the face of the expectations put on her. The way Chu shoots that moment, very simply cutting from Nina in the present, and then to the past, with the young girl dancing on the street, was just incredibly beautiful. It really set the tone for her character and her story. Channeling that longing for somewhere to belong after having been away in the real world outside Washington Heights.

The second was Abuela Claudia’s solo “Paciencia Y Fe.” This was a real change in style from Chu. This solo is shot dramatically, starting in the subway and ending at a beautiful footpath, tracing Claudia’s story from the slums of Cuba to Nuevo York. Just goosebumps.

My final choice is Lin-Manuel’s “Piragua.” As Lin-Manuel pushes that ice cart, the music just sent shivers down my spine. I want to play it all the time. It’s a great song that does double duty in helping set the tone and theme of the movie, while also being playful and get off your seat danceable.

Lo Le Lo Le Lo Lai Lai Lo Le

In the Heights

UA: Sentiment is something that is incredibly hard to dramatize. And In the Heights never comes off as being mawkish or hokey. A lot of that has to do with how all of the stories here are rooted in some kind of reality. Lin-Manuel Miranda is incredibly deft in the way he blends fantasy and reality, Just like in Hamilton, he takes the truth of the Heights, infuses it with romance, and then balances that out with just the right amount of yearning and heartbreak.  

BY: And I think Chu’s directing style really supports that. The pool sequence you mentioned earlier, although involving a huge amount of dancers, isn’t unbelievable. But then to go from that to the fire escape sequence, or Abuela Claudia’s solo, the balance of fantasy and reality is beautifully managed.

This isn’t rooted in “reality” the way West Side Story is, but it never strays too far into the fantastical either. Lin-Manuel’s themes of dreams and hopes are matched with the treatment of the sequences. Like you, I can’t say for sure what, or if any of that, was in the original stage musical, but that raising of stakes, and raising of scale, works so well here.

UA: We know that the songs are great. (They’ve been around for a while.) We know that Lin-Manuel Miranda is prodigious. And we know what John M. Chu can do. As for this adaptation, its triumph is in introducing the world to Anthony Ramos, and Melissa Barrera, and Leslie Grace, and Gregory Diaz. There wasn’t a single weak link in this lineup. Every one of these performers just nails it. The acting. The singing. The dancing. Hollywood needs to immediately embrace these triple threats.

BY: And you know what? As excited as I was for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, I really wonder if this is not the musical I will find myself going back to. In the Heights feels of the moment, whereas West Side Story could end up feeling like a throwback. Don’t get me wrong, I will probably end up loving them both, but I’m not sure if a tragic love story is what I want right now. Also, the concerns about whether Spielberg will stick closely to the 1961 adaptation is always at the back of my mind. Would it feel flat? Like a mere copy of a much better original? Or would it keep the magic the way Clint Eastwood was able to do with Jersey Boys?

UA: You hit the nail on the head. In the Heights is of the moment. It speaks to the here and the now. But not in a way that is in danger of being dated. There is a universality to this story in how well it speaks to all of us huddled masses, irrespective of where we are in the world. And what’s great is that it comes in this clever, catchy, and cheerful package.

BY: Are you also just repeatedly pronouncing it as Washing-TON Heights now?

UA: Yes! Yes I am!

You can stream or download In the Heights on HBO GO starting September 16.

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