It’s really damn hard to replicate a Broadway show in film. Many movie studios have tried and mostly failed at transitioning the magic of Broadway to a wide audience far away from the lights of the Great White Way. It’s mostly from the fact that concessions need to be made in order for that transition to work in the first place. You can’t replicate a Broadway show as it originally was on stage in a movie theater. You need cinematography, editing, and a whole host of other techniques that simply do not exist in theatre. It’s one of the reasons why last year’s Hamilton, while good, missed that spark that the Broadway show has. So consider In the Heights to be just another challenger to doing that impossible feat; delivering a Broadway experience from the comfort of a movie theater or your living room without any major concessions.
In the Heights delivers a Broadway experience from the comfort of a movie theater and your living room without any major concessions. It does something that many have tried and failed, and Jon Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda should be damned proud at accomplishing that.
In the Heights
Director: Jon Chu
Release Date: June 9, 2021 (Tribeca Film Festival), June 10, 2021 (Theatrical/HBO Max)
From the minute you begin to watch In the Heights, you’re immediately hit by just how alive the movie feels. There’s a kinetic energy to it that, as speaking from someone who sees multiple Broadway shows in a year, matches that exact kind of pizazz. We’re introduced to all of our major players in song, like our protagonist Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) telling the story of Washington Heights to a group of children on a beach. We see all of the central characters enter the story and get brief glimpses of their lives and what they each represent to the community.
Community is probably the biggest driving force in the film, showing the ways we’re all interconnected in each other’s stories. Not just by proximity, but how everyone feels like they know everyone and cares for each other. It’s almost impossible not to look back at where we were a year ago when this movie was supposed to be released. We were all isolated and it looked like our communities were fractured, unable to support one another. Well, the summer sun is out and like everyone in the city in this film, now’s the moment where everyone connects and has a blast doing so.
Unlike most major movie musicals, which are more concerned with casting big stars to draw in names that may or may not have singing talents in the first place, the majority of the cast are either Broadway stars or fairly unknown actors. There is no star power to distract you from their lack of talents since everyone here is talented. There are thankfully no Russell Crowes to be found in In the Heights since everyone is able to sing and dance and show that you don’t need star power to deliver an excellent performance. There is pure, raw talent on display in the numerous songs that litter the film, and my God are they impressive to watch.
While the smaller, more intimate songs are great in their own ways, like the touching “When the Sun Goes Down” or “Champagne,” both of which are able to successfully convey the deep relationships between the couples of each song, each of the group numbers is just spectacular in their own rights. When In the Heights wants to go big, it goes BIG. “96,000,” which is the best song in the movie for the record, features literally hundreds of extras doing choreographed dancing both in and out of the water and feels like something that just couldn’t be done on Broadway no matter how good of a show the original production was. It’s entrancing and your eyes dart across the screen to see just how much time and effort was put into making this song, and the movie in general looks this good on a consistent basis. In this regard, the film actually surpasses the original production.
All of the major songs have some kind of great visual identifier that instantly makes them recognizable and relates to the inner conflicts of each of the cast members. Nina (Leslie Grace) sees younger versions of herself dancing around whenever she has a solo song. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) imagines giant rolls of cloth draping over the city while she wishes she could break free of the suffocating neighborhood. Meanwhile, Abuella’s (Olga Merediz) song “Paciencia y Fe,” is sensationally powerful thanks to the costuming decisions and its time-hopping depictions of New York with an ending that made me hold back tears it was that well done. Chu has a remarkable eye for creating these meaningful and striking images, which shouldn’t be any surprise if you saw Crazy Rich Asians.
I can imagine some diehard Broadway fans being upset at some of the changes made for the sake of this adaptation, but I think they work. Some of the changes are minor, like altering the order of songs and when they appear, to major ones like removing key scenes and character moments. As someone who has never seen the Broadway show, I don’t really mind these changes as they still create a narrative that flowed very well, despite having some handwaving at times to move the plot along and create drama.
But I don’t really regard these changes as issues since the final product is just so cohesive. Everything serves a purpose here and there is virtually no wasted space. Sometimes in a normal musical, you’re just waiting around until the next song starts, but the drama, tension, and acting in In the Heights all manage to keep you engaged with what’s going to happen to Washington Heights. Is the community going to survive when there are so many major changes happening? As the movie goes on I really do want to know. These characters have lives to them that make them worth following and caring about. And their lives are beautifully shown in the music because, once again, the songs are just performed wonderfully.
It felt so good to be back in a theater with an audience watching this. Despite not being a Broadway show, people were clapping at the end of the opening number. They laughed at all of the jokes and asides, cheered when the parties were happening and gave a rousing applause when the credits rolled. I know that’s kind of like the equivalent of clapping when a plane lands since there’s no one there to receive your applause, but it just felt so good to see this movie in a public space with others and experience entertainment like this again.
Do yourself a favor and see this movie in a theater. Hell, just do yourself a favor and see this movie. It’s going to take some time for me to really figure out where this ranks among my favorite movie musicals, but the fact that I know it’s going to be up there after one viewing should speak volumes. It’s funny that before this movie I saw trailers for Dear Evan Hansen and West Side Story and they have one hell of a tough act to follow as far as movie musical go. This is going to be the year of the movie musical and it’s going to be incredibly hard for both of those movies to top In the Heights.