In the Heights

In the Heights

2021, PG-13, 143 min. Directed by John M. Chu. Starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 11, 2021

What is a neighborhood? It's not the place, or the people. It's the place and the people, at a particular moment in time. That's the story of In the Heights, the cinematic adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's breakout pre-Hamilton musical about three days in the life of an Upper Manhattan working class community.

In the Heights doesn't structure the story of the changing face of New York as a battle. Gentrification is happening, but change, well, change is a thing that happens. As local businessman Kevin Rosario (Smits) notes, the Heights was an Irish neighborhood before it became a little corner of the Dominican Republic. Some businesses are being forced out, but others, like the corner bodega, are closing because the owners have other plans. Usnavi (Ramos) has his dream of moving back to the Dominican Republic, to reopen his father's old beachfront bar: The bodega, he tells the beach kids, was only meant to be a brief stop gap, but he was there for a decade. Yes, he tells the story of his old block in New York's Hispanic Washington Heights as a flashback: It's about his best friend, Benny (Hawkins), who works at the neighborhood cab company; and Nina (Grace), the girl from the block who got into Stanford carrying all the hopes and dreams of the community with her, and is buckling under the weight; and Vanessa (Barrera), working at the nail salon but desperate to move Downtown, past 14th Street, where her dreams of breaking into fashion are hanging by a thread.

There's no villain hanging over In the Heights, no one to really blame for anything. Instead, this is like a Shakespearian problem play in vibrant song-and-dance form, as the clock ticks down to a blackout. After all, what's NYC in the summer without someone sweating on a stoop? But the real countdown is in Usnavi's planned departure, and Nina returning to school, and Vanessa getting that apartment. If they get their dreams, then they leave the Heights. If they stay, their dreams die. How to square those circles?

Director John M. Chu goes past his Crazy Rich Asians success to his breakthrough helming the second and third entries in the always-fun Step Up series. Yet while this is his chance to bring street dance in a rainbow of forms to the big screen (no limb goes limp here, even in mass crowd scenes), he also delves into the Hollywood classics. Clear bows to Busby Berkeley abound, especially in a pool routine for "96,000" that is an obvious homage to the human fountain in Footlight Parade; but Chu and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler find a fresh twist on Nicholas Castle's rotating room trick from Royal Wedding – no mean feat in itself, but it's moments like that which justify going for a full cinematic production, as opposed to the filmed stage version of Hamilton. Chu leans heavily into the inherent fantasy of the musical with massive dance routines, huge carnivals that spontaneously erupt, and fantastical elements that, again, speak to the golden era of Technicolor musicals. And, oh, is In the Heights vibrant and awash with color and movement.

If In the Heights ever stumbles, it's in that old mantra about too much of a good thing. Miranda and stage play book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes aren't precious about their original text, restructuring key events to change motivations, reordering songs, and chamfering off some of the harsher plot points, all making for a fresh but familiar experience for fans. But two-and-a-half hours in the cinema is a different experience to three hours with an intermission in the theatre, and In the Heights can leave you breathless, especially after the boisterous, nonstop opening act before the blackout, where the energy never drops. That restructuring and reordering pushes several of the emotionally heaviest moments and most loaded songs into the third act, a tempo change that's a little jarring after so much excitement before.

But "it's too good" is scarcely a complaint. In the Heights is unashamedly romantic, fearlessly thrilling, endlessly optimistic and given life and voice through sheer love of people, of place – of community.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Anthony Ramos Films
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
The Autobots get wild as their animal counterparts join the fight

Trace Sauveur, June 9, 2023

Lin-Manuel Miranda's era-defining political musical brings hope home on Disney+

Kimberley Jones, July 3, 2020

More by Richard Whittaker
Wrecking Mansions and Perfecting Accents With <i>Abigail</i>’s Directors
Wrecking Mansions and Perfecting Accents With Abigail’s Directors
Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin take a bite out of vampires

April 20, 2024

Earth Day, Record Store Day, and More Recommended Events
Earth Day, Record Store Day, and More Recommended Events
Go green in a number of ways this week

April 19, 2024


In the Heights, John M. Chu, Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Lin-Manuel Miranda

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle