‘In the Heights’ musical welcomes viewers home

John Chu’s ‘In the Heights’ stars Anthony Ramos (‘Hamilton’) as Usnavi, the owner of a bodega in Washington Heights. The film, based on the musical of the same title, portrays the ethnic communities in the area, reframed for the current day. // Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Our Take: 4 Stars

While the movie-musical scene has become crowded in recent years and many filmmakers have struggled to adapt Broadway productions into the film format, “In the Heights” is a standout hit. Adapted from the Broadway musical of the same title, “In the Heights”, written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and directed by Jon M. Chu, brings magic and Latin rhythm to the story of a community that refuses to be silenced.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, “She’s Gotta Have It”) leads the cast of characters as a pillar of his community and owner of the local bodega. In the opening song, Usnavi illustrates life in the Barrio: constant work in the hopes of accomplishing a greater dream someday.

As each character is introduced, Usnavi describes their dreams and the obstacles they face. Benny (Corey Hawkins, “Straight Out of Compton”) dreams of becoming a successful businessman. Nina (Leslie Grace, “Leslie Grace & Meek Mill & Boi-1da: Conga”) wants to have academic success while maintaining her connection to her culture. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, “Vida”) dreams of moving out of the Barrio and becoming a fashion designer. And Usnavi dreams of returning to his family home in the Dominican Republic.

Fans of the original Broadway musical will appreciate the familiarity of the characters, story and music but notice some changes as well.

The movie departs from the original content as it refocuses on the story on the four central characters and the two matriarchs of the neighborhood: Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, “Orange is the New Black”) and Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, “Flash”).

In line with the original plot, the story addresses issues of gentrification and the loss of vital ethnic communities while also tackling more modern issues such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The film version of the musical is also more understanding of the needs of the community it attempts to portray. For example, a verse disapproving of looting in the song “Blackout” was replaced with lyrics about illuminating the community as the writers emphasize community organization and investment over policing.

The story’s pivot on social issues highlights the contrast between when the Broadway musical was created and today. The hopefulness of 2008, when the musical first debuted, in the midst of post 9/11 recovery and the election of the first Black president are juxtaposed against racial tensions and divisiveness during the Trump presidency.

However, the film’s attempts to represent the Latinx community were not as successful as its emotional appeal to audiences. Upon its release, “In the Heights” faced criticisms of colorism for its lack of representation of darker-skinned, Afro-Latinx actors. While no film can be perfectly representative of the community it portrays, the adaptation’s attempts to modernize and be more socially aware feel disingenuous without tangible action.

The production had the perfect opportunity and platform to elevate their social action beyond performative activism, and they failed to do so.

From a cinematic perspective, “In the Heights” stays true to its source material, skillfully recreating the magic of the live theatre experience by utilizing CGI to show that Washington Heights exists in a world of enchantment just beyond the scope of reality. Chu recruited a large ensemble, far greater in size than the original cast, to create dynamic and high-energy musical numbers and further develop the sense of community.

Fans of the Broadway show will also notice many of the actors from the stage musical make appearances in the movie, such as Lin Manuel-Miranda (“Hamilton”), Christopher Jackson (“When They See Us”), and Olga Merediz (“Mamma Mia!”).

Manuel-Miranda and Jackson originated the characters of Usnavi and Benny, respectively, on Broadway, but opted for smaller roles in the movie, handing their original roles to a new batch of actors who expertly bring the characters to life in a way that feels natural and compelling on film. Anthony Ramos and Leslie Grace are the standout performers of the film. Both actors offer charismatic, powerful performances that keep their characters true to the source material while reimagining and reframing them for the modern age.

“In the Heights”, filmed in 2019, conveys a sense of nostalgia, reminding viewers of a time before the pandemic, when people were simply much closer. But the resounding message of the film rings as true in the midst of the pandemic as before: community and togetherness can change sorrow into joy and tragedy into triumph.

“In the Heights” is available in select theatres and streaming on Amazon Prime and YouTube.