Review: ‘In The Heights’

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After waiting in apprehension for the cinematic release of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original Broadway offering, In the Heights, the stage to screen adaptation has finally landed. And what a landing it is. An absolute joy to watch, In the Heights combines addictive musicality with true, heartfelt character and story, offering a beautiful insight into Latin American communities in the United States. 

As an original lover of the musical, the wait for In the Heights seemed endless, partly due to my excitement, and partly due to my somewhat ridiculous fear of musical adaptations. I mean, we all saw what happened to The Prom. And, upon realising, with the release of the cast album a week prior to debut, that several of my favourite songs had been cut, I began to fear the worst. 

Luckily, however, the songs that remained carried the spirit and ultimate heart of the musical through to the silver screen. Indeed, Miranda’s iconic combination of rap and theatre had our entire screening dancing in their seats. Special commendation has to be given, however, to the title piece, ‘In the Heights’, the all-consuming passionate rapping of ‘96,000’ and the powerful message of ‘Carnaval Del Barrio’. 

These characters are dreamers, hard workers – ordinary people representative of a greater Latinx culture that exists outside of the tired Hollywood stereotyping of gangs, drugs, and shout-outs often relied upon.

Soundtrack aside, what truly makes the story of In the Heights are the powerful characters attached to its narrative. These characters are dreamers, hard workers – ordinary people representative of a greater Latinx culture that exists outside of the tired Hollywood stereotyping of gangs, drugs, and shoot-outs often relief upon. These characters are, as many Twitter users examined, fully-fleshed out individuals that demonstrate the strength and unity of Latinx communities. With such a talented cast, led by Broadway upstart Anthony Ramos in the titular role of Usnavi, these ordinary dreamers are made extraodinary, demonstrating the importance of our individual suenitos in changing the world.

The light encouraged from the optimism and suenitos of this influential cast ensure that there are only dapples of darkness in this otherwise uplifting summer blockbuster

With many critical issues explored – the plight of undocumented immigrants, the struggle with institutionalised racism and classism, and the perils of capitalism – it would be easy to feel overwhelmed. Yet, the light encouraged from the optimism and suenitos of this influential cast ensure that there are only dapples of darkness in this otherwise uplifting summer blockbuster. Something that seems to, in turn, encourage a positive hope for action and change.

However, many in the Latinx community have criticised the film for its lack of Afro-Latino representation, a fact that originator and composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has also acknowledged. In a statement posted on social media, Lin expressed his disappointment that he, himself, had fallen into the trap of subjective representation based upon his own experiences and committed to doing better in the future. A worthwhile response, yet, some argue, just a tad too late. 

As someone outside of the community, I must say that I had not realised this lack of representation until it was brought to my attention, simply due to a lack of knowledge in this area, which is something I believe many people will experience. Hence why it is important to uplift the voices of those that can attest to their own culture. In the Heights is a beautiful step towards cultural appreciation and representation, but these complaints remind us that there is often more to do. 

As far as personal criticism goes, I have to question the decision to remove Nina’s mother from the narrative. While perhaps this choice was made so as to solidify the relationship between Nina and her father, it seems remarkably similar to the Disney-like need to require all characters to be orphaned in order to garner sympathy. And, for that matter, I must complain about one truly poignant missing piece from the original stage production – ‘Everything I know’, a song performed by the character of Nina as she explains Abuela Claudia’s true impact upon the Barrio. While Olga Merediz reprises the role of Claudia incredibly for the silver screen, I almost feel as though her character was let down by the absence of this song, and all the development and backstory it contains. In fact, if you haven’t heard this original piece, I urge you to go and listen to it. It might just make Merediz’s entire performance seem that little bit more heartbreaking.

Excitingly, though, despite this there are still many nods in the movie to the original stage production, with post-credit scenes revealing Lin Manuel-Miranda himself, both originator of Usnavi and the musical as a whole, rivalling Chris Jackson, original Benny on Broadway, in the ‘Piragua’ reprise. To say that this moment had me a little excited, would be an understatement; I practically squealed in the cinema. Other insightful moments for theatre fans are found throughout the film, with the hilarious ‘You’ll Be Back’ track from Hamilton playing as holding music in the dispatch. 

Overall, the film positions itself as an exciting, must-watch summer blockbuster, paving the way for new musical adaptations and, more importantly, for wider representation. I can almost guarantee that once you see it, you’ll have a new soundtrack for your summer. 

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