When the credits rolled at the end of In the Heights, I stayed to see if I could find out how many extras were used for dancers. I soon realized that the list would have been at least the size of three screen shots. I returned home, I logged on to HBO Max, and (to the best of my ability) counted how many extra dancers were used.
The final count I arrived at was 274. Honestly, it may as well have been 96,000.
That is how the adaptation of the freshman musical from Lin Manuel Miranda (whose second musical would be the uber popular Hamilton) comes across: extravagant and full of heart. There is not a moment when you feel every person involved with this film is not having a lot of fun. This is easily the best musical since La La Land.
Like Hamilton (whose Christopher Jackson, aka George Washington, makes a cameo here), Miranda (who also plays the Paragua guy in the film) was the writer of the story and the music for the 2008 stage musical while playing the main role of Usnavi. In the film, the main role is played with energetic gusto by Anthony Ramos (an alumni of Hamilton). Usnavi is a young Puerto Rican living in Washington Heights as he runs a small coffee shop with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). He is smitten by the local Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works at the local hair salon. His best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) works for the local taxi company run by Kevin Rosario (the always brilliant Jimmy Smits) while also pining for his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who has just returned home from college.
The neighborhood also has its own sage-like entity in Claudia, referred to by most as Abuela. She is played by Olga Merediz, who played the role in the stage version as well. She has a song for herself toward the middle of the story, and if you know what it is, then you need not worry because she does not disappoint with it.
The story is relatively simple, in that it shows Usnavi trying to fulfill his goal of opening a beach side bar back in Puerto Rico while dealing with his feelings with Vanessa, who is trying to make it out on her own. Meanwhile, Nina is hiding some of her own feelings. from her father regarding school. The story is easy to follow even if you don’t go to the musical for the story.
As for the musical aspect of the film, there is barely a moment of disappointment. There are almost no words to explain the songs and dancing (a huge shout out to choreographer Chris Scott), but I will settle with “astonishing”. Singing and dancing is one thing: doing it in a swimming pool is quite another (not to mention the contortionists. It is also refreshing to see many ages represented in the troupe as well.
While Lin Manuel Miranda is indeed the one person most responsible for the film, I feel director Jon M. Chu will be a little overlooked. In his first film since 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, he manages to show things that I imagine could not be shown on stage. Take, for example, the image toward the end of the opening number, when Usnavi is looking out the window at the dancers. The same can be said for the beginning of “96,000” when we see the outpouring of the characters’ imaginations. Or the dancing wigs in the hair salon. Chu recognizes these things but does not go all out on them. He uses them for just the right amount of time.
Parents, I admit to being a little taken aback when I noticed a fair amount of kids in the theater with me, some as young as 10 or so. The movie is PG-13, mainly because of the sexual content in the lyrics (there is no nudity, and only a little kissing). Most of the lyrics are said too fast for a kid to pick up, but that does not mean that they are not there. Also, while it is not too surprising to find out, it is still noteworthy that the dancing (which I cannot stress enough is spectacular) is somewhat suggestive at times.
While the movie is indeed long, I was surprised to not find it dragging at all, even though the film could have done with at least one or two songs less. That, of course, leads to asking which one gets cut, which I am not sure I could do.
Like a truck load of films, In the Heights was originally meant to be released in 2020 but got pushed back due to COVID. In a sense, that is a good thing, because this is one of the best films to have in a post-pandemic. It is an ultimate feel-good movie and comes with many messages from the lyrics. My favorite is how we illuminate the stories of our surroundings, and, despite how they end, it makes our lives complete.
Add on the fact that I now need to invest in a Tide pen, and I am all set.