In so many ways, truth is stranger than fiction. According to actor Olga Merediz (The Place Beyond the Pines) in the featurette “That Music in the Air,” playwright/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda told her that he’d begun writing songs that would appear in In the Heights at the age of 17. This might explain much of the exuberance bursting forth from every inch of director Jon M. Chu’s (Crazy Rich Asians) adaptation of the award-winning Broadway show. Miranda was basically a kid and, while his adolescence wasn’t exactly safe from insult or injury, the love of his community shines through each lyric, rhyme, and each note rising up from his performers. Even as the story of In the Heights goes into difficult topics of gentrification; the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program whose members are called “Dreamers;” and the despair that comes from knowing that no matter how hard you work, you may never truly be accepted; there lies within a persistent joy and hope that the actions of today pave the way for the footsteps of tomorrow and that, with each little piece, a chance can come, signifying that we, as individuals, aren’t just a part of a community, but were able to make an indelible mark on the world before we leave it.
In the neighborhood of Washington Heights, Manhattan, lives a community of people seeing the businesses they’ve built slowly being changed over to new outsider owners as the rent continues to get higher. It’s difficult to claim something for yourself when everything around you tells you to leave. At the center of things is bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) who’s been trying to figure out a way to move back to his father’s native Dominican Republic. Right as an opportunity arises, his old friend Nina (Leslie Grace) returns from Stanford with news none-to-pleasant for her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) but slightly delightful to old beau Benny (Corey Hawkins). Meanwhile, the girl of his dreams, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), is making plans to move uptown a bit as her boss, beauty shop owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), prepares to move her shop several blocks away. Change is in the air, along with plenty of heat and uncertainty, leading everyone toward a destination none could predict.
In the Heights is the kind of film that sneaks up on you. It opens with this saccharine sweetness of Usnavi sitting by a little cart on the beach, resting under cover while being asked by the neighborhood kids to tell them a story before they go play. The children are each adorable and Usnavi is more than eager to oblige, shifting us from the beautiful beach of the Dominican Republic to the streets of Washington Heights where we not only meet the central characters as they get ready for their day, but are treated to an elaborate dance number. Heights wears its sincerity on its sleeve from the start, wanting you to either fall in love with a community you’ve never seen or remember why you loved it in the first place. Being a bit jaded from a lifetime of Broadway shows, musicals, and just storytelling in general, you’d be forgiven for expecting there to be a major villain, a horrible challenge, or some wrong which must be righted by the end of the tale. Instead, Heights is all about a few days in the lives of its people, lives which existed before the start of the story and which continue on long after you stop the film. And that’s where it gets you. These aren’t mundane people living mundane lives. They are all of us, striving to be the best version of themselves that they can, just as able to see the worst in themselves while shining the brightest of lights on someone else. Their songs are of present joy and past pain; of wanting to fit in; of trying to create your dreams; of being accepted as a part of the greater community of America without losing an ounce of what makes them themselves: members of the rich Latin diaspora. So whether you’re part of this community or are merely visiting cinematically, what may begin as a typical up-beat tale of cultural joy will soon have you dancing in your seat or reaching for tissues.
If you’re a fan of the original Broadway show, a few things worth noting that up the enjoyment factor. The spectacular Olga Merediz plays Abuela Claudia, a role she didn’t originate but took over in the Off-Broadway and Broadway run from 2007-2008. In the featurette, “That Music in the Air,” she talks about how comfortable she was to return to this character. While I could not relate specifically to Merediz’s Claudia, I couldn’t help but think of my own grandmother (FYI: abuela is Spanish for “grandmother”) and what she went through as a young girl. It was nothing like Claudia’s story of immigrating to the United States in 1943, but I could very much understand the emotion in Merediz’s voice, from Miranda’s lyrics, that spoke of being told of a welcome greeting to come to the country while also being told that they weren’t good enough to be a citizen. It’s with Claudia’s song, “Paciencia Y Fe” that In the Heights, had it not already, envelopes you, turning you into a puddle of tears. But not everything is tears. There is Miranda himself (Usnavi on the off-Broadway/Broadway show) taking on a small role as Piragüero, a man he modeled after his grandfather (including book and glasses); and Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington in Hamilton and Benny in the Waterford — Broadway runs (2015-2018), returns as Piragüero’s streetside confection competition. Additionally, it’s revealed in the “That Music in the Air” featurette that many of the ensemble singers are from current or past Heights casts. It’s a small touch but continues the overarching belief about Miranda that he tends not to leave people behind. Also, for the Hamilton fans, play close attention in the scene when Smit’s Kevin Rosario is on hold: the music will be mighty familiar.
Coming to In the Heights so late, there’re two things worth noting about the film that may or may (depending on your view) impact how you receive Chu’s adaptation. First, and this is a mostly minor quibble, but there are many songs on the soundtrack which either sound a bit like or contain aspects of songs which Hamilton fans have basically integrated into their DNA. The manner in which the ensemble overlaps in “96,000” is very similar to the opening of “Right Hand Man,” for example. The start of “96,000” features four characters walk to the pool has a similar speed and overall tone of “A Winter’s Ball.” Miranda himself is recorded saying, “Anytime you write a song and then you steal the best part for the next song…” in the “That Music in the Air” featurette, so I’m guessing quite a bit of the similarity is purposeful. I call this a quibble as Hans Zimmer took a minor set of chords in the song “The Battle” from Gladiator (2000) and turned that into Captain Jack Sparrow’s theme for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). Certainly, if we can forgive one, we can forgive the other.
The other issue is not as small, yet is far less distracting until you notice it: the lack of variance in colored representation. The cast Chu assembled — Ramos, Barrera, Hawkins, Grace, Smits, Merediz, Rubin-Vega, Marc Anthony (Man on Fire), Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs. the Bronx), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Dascha Polanco (Orange is the New Black) — are fantastic performers who are undeniably captivating in the roles. Each one represents, in their own way, various Latin countries, each one made plain during the song “Carnaval Del Barrio.” But the central cast themselves aren’t particularly variant in their overall skin tone of those countries. There’s plenty of representation of Washington Heights in the background via the ensemble, so it’s obvious that these lighter skinned characters don’t make up the entire neighborhood. This combined with the sidelining of a storyline involving Beatriz’s Carla and her girlfriend, highlight why some folks were a bit disappointed with representation in In the Heights.
Now able to watch at home, those who enjoyed the film will find a myriad of ways to expand the experience. There’re six individual featurettes, totaling 43:49 minutes, that explore everything from the approach to telling these stories, the recreation of the music, incorporation of Washington Heights itself, to how they made some of the scenes come to life. In addition, you can also take part in a karaoke-style sing-a-long of two numbers, “In the Heights” and “96,000,” or just jump to your favorite musical moment and enjoy it as presented within the film. Be advised that only one featurette, “Alza La Bandera/Raise the Flag,” is included on the DVD and that the iTunes digital edition includes “The Chu Method,” a nearly 10-minute featurette that focuses more on how Chu approached the film. I definitely recommend checking out that featurette if you have access as it was fascinating to learn that Chu likes to work in the moment while on set, so they storyboarded and practiced some things prior to coming to set so that they could be comfortable with the blocking and singing, creating the opportunity for improvisation. Also, you get an inside look into how they completed the dancing on the side of the building scene via a trick camera and separate moving set, and learn how the Carnivale scene was shot in basically one take, but was shot with expansive coverage so that it could be edited together as one complete sequence. Whether you’re interested in the technical side of filmmaking or just want a deeper dive into In the Heights, the bonus materials won’t disappoint. If you do favor 4K over Blu-ray, be advised that the bonus features are located on the Blu-ray and digital editions, while the 4K only allows you to revisit musical scenes individually.
Technically speaking, the home release is bound to be perfectly serviceable with your home theater set-up. There’s no mention of HDR inclusion in the press materials or on the packaging, but the video is presented in 2160p Ultra High Definition, so you do get a clear crisp picture with every frame. Where you can really get the full effect of UHD is during the extended nighttime sequence and “Paciencia Y Fe.” The beauty of the latter really ups the emotional factor of the song. For those with Atmos capability, both the 4K and Blu-ray discs include an Atmos track, so you’ll really be able to get a strong at-home audio experience. Even on my 5.1 speaker set-up the sound was immersive, especially during the musical numbers when it counts the most.
Having had months of the hype go by before watching In the Heights, I’m able to see both the good and the bad with a bit of distance. Knowing the issues doesn’t reduce any of the incredible performances or make the songs less impactful. This doesn’t mean that they’re not worth considering or addressing in future films, but I don’t think it’s enough to cancel all future stories like In the Heights. If this story can tell us anything, and it’s something far too many forget, it’s that America is a colorful country because of the people who live here. Without getting into the *very* complicated nature of how this country treats the Indigenous peoples as well as any immigrant deemed lower class (that’s a whole other article and one worth writing by someone more qualified), America becomes greater, in large part, by the little things its people leave behind for the next generation. There is opportunity, a positive one at that, to shape the future for the better as long as we remember not to leave anyone behind. If I may, the best place to start is with what Abuela Claudia sings: paciencia y fe (patience and faith).
In The Heights 4K UHD combo pack and Blu-ray contain the following special features:
- Paciencia y Fe: Making in the Heights (43:49)
- Paciencia y Fe: When You’re Home (5:28)
- Paciencia y Fe: Hundreds of Stories (8:17)
- Paciencia y Fe: Alza La Bandera/Raise the Flag (6:40)
- Paciencia y Fe: Wepa! (7:24)
- Paciencia y Fe: That Music in the Air (9:54)
- Paciencia y Fe: Who Keeps our Legacies (6:06)
- In the Heights Sing-a-long (7:40)
- 96,000 Sing-a-long (6:02)
- Musical Numbers
In the Heights DVD contains the following special features:
- Paciencia y Fe: Alza La Bandera/Raise the Flag (6:40)
In the Heights iTunes Edition contains the following additional special feature:
- The Chu Method (9:56)
Available on Premium Digital Ownership July 30th, 2021.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD August 31st, 2021.
For more information, head to the official In The Heights film website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.