Before Lin-Manuel Miranda created Hamilton, his biggest claims to fame were both related to Hispanic culture and theatre: Providing Spanish translated lyrics to the 2009 West Side Story revival and creating his own musical about the Hispanic-American culture–In The Heights. I listened to the original Broadway soundtrack every now and then and thanks to Howard Ho, I found a really good proshot of the musical and watched it in anticipation of the 2021 movie.
There’s a reason why this movie was always meant to come out in the summer. It’s the musical version of a summer blockbuster. What I’m gonna say, spoiler-free, is that this movie isn’t a one-for-one remake of the stage musical. And that’s honestly a good thing. For the most part. Minor spoilers ahead!
The big theme of In The Heights is the dreams that everyone has, symbolized by the phrase “El Suañito” which means “Little Dream.” Usnavi dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic, Nina has dreams of making it big at Stanford, and Vanessa dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Everyone in Washington Heights works hard and dreams big. Yes, this movie is basically slice-of-life with a bit of romance and a bit of drama. But the optimism of this film is very refreshing given how cynical and dark a lot of other movies out there have been.
Also, this is just me being petty, but this movie kicks La La Land‘s butt in terms of story and cinematography and having people who can, you know, actually sing. The actress playing Nina is by far the weakest singer, sorry to say, but she’s at least better than Emma Stone. Sorry not sorry!
Speaking of singers, though, Daphne Rubin-Vega was seriously awesome as Daniella. Most musical fans will recognize Rubin-Vega as the original Broadway Mimi from Rent. Rubin-Vega sounds a lot older now, but she puts so much spirit into her performance. Stephanie Beatriz is equally impressive as Carla, the ditzy salon lady. It’s very different from her signature role as Rosa from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Daniella and Carla are an official couple in the film and their relationship is treated very nicely.
Vanessa also gets some much-needed fleshing out. Her dream is a lot more specific here: becoming a fashion designer. Similar to Usnavi, she realizes that (much like The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life) all that she needs to inspire her is already in front of her, in the barrio. And of course, Anthony Ramos as Usnavi is just perfect. He plays the role with charm but he’s also a major dork, especially around Vanessa, and he’s a lot more realistic compared to his friends. Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Piragua Guy is also really nice cuz he gets to really sing some great stuff, especially in “Carnaval de Barrio.”
Standout moments: Obviously “96,000” was a big moment! I was dancing in my living room (one advantage of watching a movie at home) during that song as well as “Carnaval de Barrio.” I totally felt the pride of everyone waving the flags of their home countries. I almost want a Philippine flag just so that I could join in! “Paciencia Y Fe” had me tearing up (not an easy job but musicals do this to me every time). And of course, the way the movie ended was just pure heartwarming.
Overall, I think the director really wanted this to be more of a lighthearted, optimistic musical and John M. Chu did a really good job of doing that. The framing device of the film (Usnavi telling the story of Washington Heights to a group of kids) really suits his character arc and the overall theme of just being heard in the world. I liked that they included topical events without being heavy-handed about it. The struggles feel relatable, but they don’t hit you over the head with it which is a lot nicer than I can say about other ways the whole ripped from the headlines trope can be executed.
There are other minor changes to the narrative that, to me, don’t really affect the overall story. But if you’re a diehard fan of the stage show, I’ll admit that some of the drama/suspense gets taken away.
Minor Nitpicks/Minor Spoilers:
Minor nitpick #1: I don’t exactly know why Cuca was added to the film, however. Minor nitpick, but it would have been an easy fix to just rename Cuca as Yolanda, since Yolanda gets mentioned in “No Me Diga.” Then again, that might have led to a minor catfight since Vanessa calls Yolanda a skank.
Minor nitpick/spoiler #2: I wanted closure for Nina, Benny, and Kevin. Yes, Nina might go back to Stanford, but what’s she gonna do with her education? Where are Benny and Kevin gonna go? It’s stated (minor spoiler) that Nina will use her education to try and help her community, especially the undocumented immigrants, but it would be nice to see it on-screen. My personal headcanon is that Nina follows through on her dream, finishing her degree. Benny and Kevin might find a career with traffic reporting and Benny could’ve moved to California (however temporary) to be with Nina. In relation, I also think that Sonny can definitely get involved with the community in a very grassroots kind of way and advocate for immigration reform in his own way.
Minor spoiler/Minor Nitpick #3: Okay, it’s implied in the stage show (maybe in a previous draft) that Sonny and Graffiti Pete could’ve been in a relationship. There was a chance for them to kiss in the stage production and maybe future productions can throw it in. But come on! If Daniella and Carla can be in a relationship, I want Sonny and Graffiti Pete to kiss, dang it!
Final thoughts: If you can, please see this movie in theatres! If you plan to dance along at home, though, make sure you have friends who can dance along with you. This movie is definitely as sweet as piragua! Watch this movie and enjoy the songs!