Film Review: Talented cast brings ‘In The Heights’ to the screen flawlessly

Carla-STEPHANIE BEATRIZ; Vanessa-MELISSA BARRERA; Usvani-ANTHONY RAMOS

In The Heights

5 out of 5 stars – ‘Smash Hit’
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Based on the Musical Stage Play Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace
2021 | PG-13 | 2h 23min
Showing: In theaters
Streaming: HBO Max (likely to return)

Review by Jeanne Powell

The film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed musical had its premiere at the Latino International Film Festival in Los Angeles early in June 2021. In The Heights just streamed for a month on HBO Max, and may return. A movie theater release occurred simultaneously with the HBO Max release.

Plans were made to wrap up and release this film musical more than a year ago. Those plans were thwarted by the covid-19 pandemic. Those of you who saw the award-winning stage musical in 2008, starring Miranda in the role of Usnavi, probably waited with impatience for the film version to be completed. And the wait was worth it.

Director John M. Chu has captured the spirit and fire of the original musical, set in a vibrant blue-collar neighborhood in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan during one hot humid summer. In order to keep the focus on main characters and their motivations, Chu made several changes in the original script, according to his June 2021 interview in the Los Angeles Times.

Two couples now are front and center — bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) has a crush on budding designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who dreams of a career elsewhere. University student Nina (Leslie Grace) renews her friendship with Bennie (Corey Hawkins), as she returns to the Heights full of doubt about whether an all-white college on the other side of the country is the right fit for her.

Jimmy Smits, well known to television viewers of NYPD Blue, is one of the elders who provides quiet reassurance to the restless younger generation, which is torn between leaving for “something better” and staying in the ‘hood to preserve its unique culture.

The Heights is a Spanish-speaking community with elders who immigrated from Cuba, Puerto Rico and especially the Dominican Republic (DR).

The Heights is a Spanish-speaking community with elders who immigrated from Cuba, Puerto Rico and especially the Dominican Republic (DR). Olga Merediz gives a moving performance as the grandmother, Abuela Claudia, “serving community” by reinforcing a sense of family and providing a spiritual anchor. Her musical celebration of her Cuban heritage during a major electrical blackout is eloquent and beautifully rendered.

WATCH: IN The Heights – Washington Heights Trailer

And the music? Well, the lyricist is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, and the musical numbers soar — with a little help from a hundred dancers who kick up a storm in the streets and in a municipal swimming pool.

When talking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Miranda recalled that he really did not think he had to be in the film. Director Chu joked about not having cast the Piragua guy. And so it happened that Miranda has a delightful cameo as the guy who pushes a hand cart selling shaved ice desserts. It is a delightful moment as he shuffles into camera range with his little cart, competing with a large refrigerated ice cream truck.

So let’s cut to the chase. SEE THIS FILM. Miranda (with screenplay by Quiara Alegria Hudes) created from the heart for this musical. He lived this story, and knows it well. Director Jon Chu and a tremendously talented cast bring it to the screen flawlessly.

Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.
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