Review: ‘In The Heights’ An Energetic, Enjoyable Movie Musical Spotlighting People On The Margins

Jun 11, 2021, 6:44 AM | Updated: Jul 30, 2021, 4:05 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — The long journey from stage to screen for “In the Heights” is finally over.  The Tony-award-winning Broadway musical originally written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (known for “Hamilton”) about a group of people living in a heavily Latin American neighborhood of New York City finally makes its big-screen debut in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday.

Universal Pictures originally planned to make a movie out of it way back in 2008 after it won Tony awards for Best Musical and Best Original Score, with the plan for it to hit theaters in 2011. But the project got put on the shelf and by 2016, the rights had been picked up by The Weinstein Company and a director brought on board, John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”).

However, after sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein came to light, Miranda & screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes auctioned off the rights to Warner Brothers Studios, who finally got the movie shot and set the theatrical release date for summer 2020 — but the COVID-19 outbreak then caused one final delay into 2021.

Fans of movie musicals probably won’t be disappointed by this very lively and authentic look at the hopes and dreams of several people in a tight-knit community of immigrants and their children who live in the Washington Heights neighborhoods of northern Manhattan.  The main character we follow is Usnavi de la Vega, played by Anthony Ramos.

It’s a unique name — with a hilarious explanation behind it — for a magnetic and likable 30-something who runs his family’s bodega. But running the family business with help from his younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) doesn’t leave Usnavi time for much else — including asking out the beautiful Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who comes in for coffee every day.

Usnavi dreams of closing the bodega and going back to the Dominican Republic, where he left as a baby, so he can reopen his father’s beachside bar and live out his days in the Caribbean sun along with Sonny and the elderly Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her Broadway role) who doesn’t have kids of her own but just acts as everyone’s “Abuela” or grandmother, by loving them and always being ready to dispense encouragement or some kindly advice.

Vanessa wants to get out of The Heights and move downtown to Manhattan, where she can hopefully make a name for herself as a fashion designer. Other key characters include Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), the girl from the block who made it into Stanford and who is back in town visiting; Benny (Corey Hawkins), who may have a thing for Nina and works as dispatcher for a car service owned by Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits).

All of the characters, including the ladies at the beauty shop where all the best gossip passes through, are feeling the pull of wanting to get out of Washington Heights for one reason or another, but also not wanting to leave the sense of family and home they feel there.

Those who never saw “In the Heights” on stage and are unfamiliar with the story shouldn’t have too much trouble keeping up.  But those who were already fans of the play might initially struggle with some of the changes Chu and Hudes made in the adaptation for screen — including cutting some characters and a few songs from the stage version, as well as changing the order that some events take place in the story.

However, the biggest change is Usnavi being played by Ramos instead of Miranda. But fans needn’t worry too much because Ramos handles the role expertly and Miranda does show up as the Piragua guy (who has his own musical number). Even Christopher Jackson, who played the role of Benny in the Broadway version (and was George Washington in “Hamilton”) makes a fun cameo appearance.

Director Chu showed us his talent for gorgeous cinematography and elaborate choreography in “Crazy Rich Asians,” and it’s on full display here in the splashy song numbers such as the titular “In the Heights,” the wild “96,000” which was shot at a public swimming pool and featured synchronized swimming and over 500 extras, and the joyous “Carnaval del Barrio.” But he also deftly handles smaller and more intimate songs and moments like “Breathe,” “Paciencia Y Fe” and “Champagne.”

There was also a very authentic Latin American feel to the movie, even beyond the music and dancing. It was also evident in little things like the decorations in the homes, the way celebratory get-togethers were shown and the way the characters talked with each other added an additional rich layer to the movie. It also has a great message about home not necessarily being a specific place, building, or even country. Instead, it can be wherever you decide you want to be, and wherever the people you love are.

“In the Heights” is rated PG-13 for language and some suggestive dialogue. It’s a little bit longer than the average movie, coming in at two hours and 23 minutes, and it does drag just a little bit at the three-quarters mark before getting its juice back for the finale. Also, much like your own neighborhood, there’s a lot of characters to keep track of during your first time through and understanding everyone’s relationship to each other was a little difficult at first.

Having any familiarity with the Spanish language and Latin culture also helps you to not miss out on the meaning of some interactions between characters and/or parts of some songs. There is a lot of dialogue where English and Spanish is mixed together, and though they do repeat most of the key Spanish words in English right after they say them, they don’t do it for all of them and that may be a frustration for some.

But hopefully something like that won’t keep people from seeing this energetic and enjoyable musical. “In The Heights” does a great job of telling some of the stories of people who can often be marginalized in American society. Everyone can relate to the frustrations, fears and joys that these characters feel as they dream, hope and sing about a better life. While DACA is mentioned and some of the characters attend an immigration rally, I didn’t find the movie to be in-your-face with any political message.

What it does have are moments of genuine humor, emotion, and a soundtrack that will have you tapping your foot, if not wanting to dance in the aisles. I give the movie THREE out of FOUR stars. Musicals may not be everyone’s thing, but there’s plenty to enjoy in this one.

“In The Heights” is playing in wide release in movie theaters and via streaming on HBO Max. To watch it at home you’ll need to either log in to the app with your HBO cable subscription information. Otherwise, you’ll have to pay for the commercial-free $15/month subscription level. But you’ll have access to all the content on HBO Max.

“In the Heights” will be available on HBO Max only until July 12.

Hopefully you & your family found this review helpful!  Andy Farnsworth is the movie and pop culture guy for the KSL 5 Today morning news show and also hosts the Fan Effect podcast for KSL NewsRadio.  Check out some of his other in-depth reviews of movies and streaming TV series on

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Review: ‘In The Heights’ An Energetic, Enjoyable Movie Musical Spotlighting People On The Margins