Virtually every song in virtually every musical is about what a character (A) says they are going to do, (B) says they are not going to do, or (C) says they regret doing. Virtually none are about someone, you know, actually doing something. This will forever and always be my inherent problem with movie musicals: Cinema’s “show don’t tell” principle butts heads with musicals’ “I can literally only tell you things” framework.
In the Heights is a vibrant romp through a very specific set of memories that unfurls against a hyperactive playlist, assembled by someone way cooler than me. It is a powerful, profound, prideful parade of Latinx joy, sorrow, and struggle. And virtually nothing actually happens. Because it’s a movie musical. I wholly understand that this is not the point! Still, it remains true that the biggest narrative progression is someone moving “Song A,” as described above, to “Song B.”
The film is, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original Broadway version was, a love song dedicated to a certain set of GPS coordinates. It is an ode to New York City Latinx life that resonates deeply with those who see the musical as a mirror or who can squint and see a family photo. The adoration that others have for it is addictive. As someone whose entire communal cultural experience is “my family sometimes watches Chicago Bears games together,” I sincerely love how much other people love In the Heights.
What passes for a plot is this: Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) says he is going to leave Washington Heights to purchase his late father’s bar in the Dominican Republic. Nina (Leslie Grace) says she’s not going back to Stanford, despite the neighborhood hailing her as their hero for “making it.” Benny (Corey Hawkins) says he’s happy Nina is back because he loves her and stuff. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) says she’s going to move to a nicer neighborhood and become a fashion designer. Usnavi says that he and Nina should get together. Everyone says that it is very hot out and that they’d like to win the lottery and should have a party.
There’s no real antagonist, unless you count the invisible machinations of capitalism, the passive malevolence of gentrification, the murderous nature of crumbling urban infrastructure, or the oppressive shadow of immigration policies. None of those gets their own villain song though.
Director John M. Chu and cinematographer Alice Brooks offer about a dozen or more legitimately pleasant variations on “people walking down a street towards a camera while extras dance behind them.” Olga Merediz’s solo number as Abuela Claudia is an emotional eyeball jackhammer that will free a torrent of tears from anyone not simply pretending to be human. At the end of the day, In the Heights should ultimately either hit you where you live ─ electrically capturing a culture to which you belong ─ or feel like the absolute best-case scenario for someone telling a story about their family reunion.
Grade = B+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Andres Cabrera at Geeks of Color says “As said in the film, ‘We are powerful,’ and it’s about time that we see ourselves up on the big screen where we can freely showcase our talent, voice, and stories.”
Rendy at Rendy Reviews says “No matter how this summer pans out for cinema, In the Heights is THE movie of the summer. It’s a fun, energetic, incredibly directed, and colorful music epic that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen. It’s a beautiful love letter to Latinx culture and the dreamers who inhabit NYC, the greatest city in the world. “
Fico Cangiano at Cinexpress says “In The Heights is a Latinx celebration. A party where we can finally really see ourselves on the big screen. A film gathering where we can laugh, cry, dance, sing and most of all celebrate life in our own way. He who knows, knows. In The Heights is a triumph.”
Dolores Quintana at her own Medium site says “While I was typing the first paragraph of this review and right now, thinking about the film, I am moved to tears. Why? I don’t expressly know why, but it’s the feeling whenever I give thought to In the Heights.”