Review: In the Heights
When you say “musical,” some people just have a natural aversion, reacting with a blanket “I don’t like/see musicals.” But if you haven’t seen a musical in years, you have missed out on a real paradigm shift in the genre, with “modern” musicals being incredibly hip and relevant, and likely 180 degrees different from what you’re imagining.
If you’re connecting the dots on the modern state of musical theater, where we break away from the big, classic Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical numbers and end up with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking rap-
infused Hamilton, there are few clear milestones we can connect on the map along the way that would include Hair and Rent.
It’s also safe to say that there wouldn’t be Hamilton had there not first been In the Heights. While the story is in no way connected to Miranda’s epoch-defining musical, you can’t help but feel the catchy beats, tempos, meter, breaks, and rat-a-tat-tat style that made Hamilton so groundbreaking were crafted and forged during his writing of In the Heights.
Heights debuted on Broadway in March 2008 and received 13 Tony nominations (ultimately winning four, including Best Musical), and had a successful multi-year run before going on a world tour. Interestingly, Universal Pictures had planned for a film adaptation in 2008, but that fell through. Warner Brothers stepped in, bringing in Jon Chu to direct after his success with Crazy Rich Asians. The film opened
THE HEIGHTS AT A GLANCE
Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first big stage musical finally makes it to the big screen.
The 4K HDR/Dolby Vision presentation presents the actors and the Brooklyn locations sharply, cleanly, and with a lot of punch.
The Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t have a lot going on in the surround or height channels, but creates a wide, detailed soundstage across the front, allowing you to pick out individual voices in the layered singing.
theatrically on June 10, while simultaneously debuting on HBO Max, where it is being shown in 4K HDR with both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos.
Miranda—likely recognizing he had aged out of playing the lead, Usnavi, but also realizing attaching his name would give the film another level of cachet—takes on the role of the Piragüero, a street snow-cone vendor. While it’s a small role—just one sub-two-minute solo—he doesn’t throw away his shot, making the most of his screen time. (And be sure to stick around through all the credits to see Señor Piraguas get the final word with Mr. Softee.)
The filmmakers throw in some nods to Hamilton, such as the on-hold music played in the background during a phone call, as well as a cameo by Chris Jackson (who played George Washington) as Mr. Softee. Less subtly, we have Anthony Ramos (who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton) taking over the lead role of Usnavi.
Some changes were made to turn the stage play into a film, such as reordering the songs and actually removing a key lyric in Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) song “Pacienza Y Fe” that reveals one of the film’s major plot points far earlier. They also
chose to have Usnavi telling the story to a group of kids, using this device to have him deliver some plot points via voiceover. One of the film’s continual themes is sueñitos, little dreams, the things that keep you motivated and going, and we learn you can barely walk down the block without running into someone’s dreams.
During the film’s lengthy opening number, “In the Heights,” Usnavi, who runs a small bodega that serves as a hub of the community, introduces us to most of the key players as well as telling us a bit about their story. In addition to Abuela, who is like a surrogate grandmother for the
neighborhood, helping to keep them centered in their Latin roots, we meet Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who runs a local taxi dispatch; Rosario’s eager employee-on-the-rise Benny (Corey Hawkins); and Rosario’s just-home-from-Stanford daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who is seen as the barrio’s best chance of getting out and succeeding. We also meet Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a nail-salon worker who aspires to be a fashion designer and the object of Usnavi’s not-very-secret affections; and Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s young undocumented helper.
A few big moments drive the story forward, such as several characters looking to move out of the Heights, a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000 sold at the bodega, and a blackout that shrouds the neighborhood in darkness—and heat—for a couple of days.
While I was never bored—and really enjoyed many of the musical and dance numbers—at 2 hours and 22 minutes, there are slow parts and by the end the film does start to feel a bit long. Like the Emperor said in Amadeus, “There are simply too many notes.” Now, I’m not sure which notes I would excise—every song serve a purpose—it’s just that after two hours, I was ready for it to wrap.
Shot at 7K resolution, the home transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the movie is really beautiful to look at. Many of the scenes are shot outside on location in Brooklyn Heights, and the natural lighting gives the film a great look. Skin tones look natural, with loads of color and shadow detail, and a huge depth of focus.
Overall the film just looks clean, focused, and sharp throughout. For example, the huge array of street dancers shown at the end of the opening number as well as in the community swimming pool after “96,000” are shown with great depth and clarity. Long shots showing buildings reveal tight, sharp lines of brick-and-mortar. Closeups also reveal all kinds of detail, such as in the opening number—as the camera moves through Usnavi’s store, we can clearly see every can, box, and label on the shelves. Faces show every pore, line, and whisker, and you can see the pinpoint detail in Rosario’s button-down shirts and suit jacket, as well as the intricacy of Abuela’s hand-sewn handkerchiefs.
There are not a lot of effects shots, save for one big dance number (“When The Sun Goes Down”) on the side of a building. However, there are two shots at the public swimming pool where Usnavi looks obviously green-screened in that were mildly distracting. This also speaks to how sharp the rest of the film looks that these moments stood out in contrast.
HDR is used to pump up the brightness of neon signs/lights in store windows, and to give the night scenes—particularly in a dance club and on the street after the blackout—more punch. In fact, the song “Blackout” would be a great demo scene, with bright flashlights, candles, sparklers, and fireworks punctuating the dark night. Abuela’s song “Pacienza Y Fe” is performed in a subway car/station lit with bright overhead lights and lots of deep shadows that really benefit from HDR.
Interestingly, even though it is mixed and presented in Dolby Atmos, the soundtrack—at least as presented by HBO Max—doesn’t feature a lot of height information, and virtually nothing in the rear/surround back speakers, with just some music going to the side and front heights.
The mix does give us some nice width and directionality across the front, letting characters and sounds move far off screen left/right as appropriate. There is also plenty of detail to let us hear individual voices in the layered singing, letting you pick out a given singer in the sonic space. We also get some nice ambient sounds that gently fill and expand the room, such as sounds of traffic, trains, sirens, dogs barking, and wind and birds in the neighborhood.
Sonically, the musical numbers are the big star here, and the instruments and vocals are given a lot of room across the front channels, with some space added in the front height and surround speakers. Many of the songs are upbeat and up-tempo and you can’t help but tap your toes. Some of my favorites were “Benny’s Dispatch,” “Champagne,” and “96,000,” which name-checks such disparate pop culture moments as Lord of the Rings, Tiger Woods, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
If you liked Hamilton—and how could you not?—then I daresay you’ll enjoy In the Heights, as its DNA runs thick throughout. By moving from the confines of a stage to a film shot throughout Brooklyn with a huge cast of dancers and extras, it expands the scale of the movie and also likely its appeal. Asking it to convert everyone into a musical lover is a big ask, but there is no disputing that it has loads of heart and looks terrific, and is certainly worth a night in your theater.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.