In the Heights Review: Savoring the History Behind the Blockbuster Movie

The success of In the Heights and a dive into how the history of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jon M. Chu, and Christopher Scott help make the translation from stage to screen work so well.

In the Heights Review: Savoing the History Behind the Blockbuster Movie
Image by Warner Brothers

Spoilers for the movie and Broadway versions of In The Heights to follow. Read at your own risk!

Note: Though I know that "Latinx" is more common, it's my understanding that "Latine" is more inclusive both to people of all genders and to Spanish speakers, so that's the term I'll be using out of respect.


I loved it. I figure if you're doing a review the first thing to get out of the way is your opinion so let's take care of that right off the top. I loved the movie version of In the Heights. I thought it was delightful, well put together, excellently translated for the screen, and I've already rewatched several parts of it multiple times.

I'll get more into this in a second but the other things I want to talk about are some of the history of In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jon M. Chu, and lead choreographer Christopher Scott. One, because I am a giant fucking nerd when it comes to dance and Broadway, and two because I think it can add to people's appreciation of the film if they understand the long path both the story and the people who worked on it took to get here. Not required in order to enjoy the film by any means, but as I say in the title it can help you savor it.

(And to be clear, this is not to discount the long path that others involved took to get here. It's just that my areas of expertise happen to involve these things. Believe me, if I could speak with even a modicum of intelligence about Quiara Alegría Hudes I'd be all over that because she's a genius. But I'm more of a sucker for dancers than writers when it comes to Broadway so here we are.)

So let's get into it.

The Extremely General Review

Like I said, I loved it. I sobbed pretty much the entire time which, granted, probably doesn't sound like much coming from someone with disabling depression. But I cried in a good way, which is a lovely change of pace for me.

For the sake of this section I'm going to try to mostly talk about the movie in and of itself and not in comparison to its Broadway version. So to that end I thought it was great. I mean you certainly don't need to know the Broadway version to love this version. It stands entirely on its own as it should.

There are changes in the story from the Broadway version, though, and to that I'll simply say I think they worked. But one is the framing device of Usnavi talking to the children which I've seen some reviewers say wasn't needed but personally I liked it. Because yes, the genre of musicals means that you're not supposed to question that people burst into song. But at the same time I think it added to the story. First of all because the magical elements of drawings appearing in the air, people dancing on buildings, and the painting of a beach being an actual beach work better as something a child might imagine as her father is telling a story (or that Usnavi might embellish to keep it interesting for the kids).

Second because it works with the inner theme of the movie itself: Usnavi stays in Washington Heights because he knows it's important to tell the stories of the people who live there. We're seeing him not only do that but also that he's passing their stories on to the next generation. His daughter, Iris, provides a promise of how their lives and culture aren't going to disappear (a symbolism emphasized by how it's confirmed she's his daughter immediately after the scenes of Abuela Claudia's death).

So sure, possibly not necessary but that doesn't mean it's not a nice touch.

Another part I liked were many understated details. The accuracy of the costumes and the sets, for example. My background isn't Latine but even so as a second generation American who grew up in Queens I recognized the housecoats and aprons Abuela Claudia wore as being exactly the same as my own grandmother's. Same for the flowered handkerchief she kept in her pocket. I could look at the apartments and feel the summer heat, and the smell of the paint, and hear the muffled noises as you walked through the hallways until you came upon the burst of light, joy, and energy at the front door of your relative's home.

Sure the cooking in my Italian grandmother's kitchen would be different, but many parts of the immigrant family experience are the same no matter where you originally hail from. It was clear that respect was paid to this and the lived experience of Latine people in even the tiny details that maybe we in the audience couldn't see but the actors still had something to react to.  In the Heights isn't just about the story but the people. You can't do the show justice without that and I'm so glad that they had the backing and space to make it happen.

And yes, me being me of course I loved the costumes. But I'm writing this after only one full view and partial rewatches so I don't yet have a long lecture prepared on all of the levels that the costumes worked and on their color stories. I'll just say I liked them (again: the accuracy of the housecoats and the aprons!!) and point you to costume designer Mitchell Travers talking about it himself. (Also I see you, green on Vanessa. I SEE YOU.)

I also liked the ending. I've seen reviewers claim the ending was unambiguously happy but I dispute that. Yes, Usnavi gets the girl and has a family which is happy for him. But that's happy for him. Kevin still sells his business. The salon still shuts down and moves to the Bronx (and any native New Yorker can tell you the accuracy of yeah, we're not making that trip even if it is only three subway stops). Gentrification is still taking over. And by the end of the movie it's still up in the air if Sonny ever got or will get his citizenship.

To me an unambiguous happy ending would be something like the winning lotto ticket turned out to be enough for everybody to buy their homes and businesses outright and stay in the neighborhood forever with no worries for the rest of their days. But the movie doesn't do that. Instead it shows that nobody can stop the neighborhood from changing. If anything, change is the only constant (as Kevin points out when he talks about how the immigrants who used to live and work there were Irish). Usnavi can plant himself like a streetlight and keep the people who lived there from being forgotten, but neither he nor anyone else in the neighborhood has the power to make sure none of them disappear.

The ending of the movie itself is very 96,000: it's not the answer to all problems, but it's a little bit of comfort against the hardships.

All of which is a lot of words about a musical without really touching on the musical aspects. But for that I need to delve into the history. Well not need. I'm sure I could find a way to manage it without that. But again I feel it adds something if you know it so indulge me if you will. First up, In the Heights itself.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the History of In the Heights on Broadway

When I was thinking of this particular section I asked myself just how much detail did I need to get into. Because I'm Broadway nerd enough that I genuinely can't tell how many people out there are saying things to themselves like "Oh well of course Chris Jackson is playing Mister Softee in the movie. Obviously!" and how many are going "Sorry who doing the what now?"

So I cheated and used Instagram to do a poll. And according to the highly scientific poll of everyone who follows me on Instagram and who answered the survey question, 25% of you are in the "Who?" bucket. And most of you in the "Of course!" bucket are even bigger theater nerds than I am so I feel that's a safe set of information to draw conclusions from. Namely that the majority of normal people have no idea what we're talking about when we get into these sorts of details and probably only put up with us because they understand that for many of us Drama Club was the gay/straight alliance at our high schools and we had to do the best we could with what we had.

All of which is to say that when a nerd like me looks at In the Heights as a movie, there's a lot of - to borrow from Hamilton - "Look at where you are! Look at where you started!" about it. Some of which I think adds to the success of the film as a film.

Because here's the thing: In the Heights the Broadway show did not really do that well. Yes, it won Tonys. Yes, it made it to Broadway and had touring companies. But first up, it didn't last that long. Just under three years on Broadway, which granted is a lot longer than many musicals have (here I shed actual tears for The Last Ship which I'm pretty sure I single-handedly kept on Broadway for the few months it did last). But still In the Heights wasn't considered successful by any means. Compare it to shows like Wicked, Book of Mormon, or Hamilton and you can see how it was more of a bubble in Broadway culture than it was a smash.

Part of the problem is that the show's concept wasn't a great hook. And I'm not talking about the Latine focus, though given the racism of Broadway that was a factor. But the other issue was that the show's concept, three days in the life of people in Washington Heights, isn't noteworthy. Your audience members are tourists and locals. Tourists don't know what Washington Heights is and thus don't know why to care about the people who live there. Locals do know Washington Heights and thus aren't inclined to shell out hundreds of bucks to see a show about their own every day lives.

I mean think about it, what are the huge plot points of the story? There's a lotto ticket but the winner is an afterthought. There's a girl with issues going to college but she keeps going to college. There's a guy who wants to date a girl who ends up dating a girl. There really aren't any high stakes here. The biggest events are the blackout and Abuela Claudia's death but even those are background details, comparatively. They don't rank as high as the chandelier crashing in Phantom of the Opera, or the barricade in Les Misérables.

Don't get me wrong, the music these events inspire is amazing! But "hey this music is really good" isn't enough to get butts in seats when by definition Broadway is filled with shows which have good music.

Moreover, people didn't really get how good the music was. Now granted, In the Heights is clearly Lin-Manuel's college project (because it, yanno, was). When you compare it to Hamilton you can see how In the Heights was where he started forming ideas of what could be done with lyrics and music styles and Hamilton is where he figured out how to actually take those things quantum levels above what anyone else has done with musicals before.

And granted: Lin-Manuel's college project is still leagues ahead of what many could ever hope to do. But most people didn't know that. If you asked the average Broadway adjacent person what In the Heights was and why it was noteworthy they'd probably tell you that it was because it was some very nice Latin music in a new Broadway show and hey we haven't had something like that in a while (if ever).

It wasn't until Lin won Best Original Score at the 2008 Tony's that people started twigging to the fact that oh wait, this guy's an actual genius. Check out his acceptance speech. That recording isn't the best but even so you can hear when the audience realizes that Lin's not rambling, he's rhyming. Then they realize no wait, he's freestyling his entire fucking speech. The entire vibe of the auditorium (and the audience watching at home) changes as for the first time people are getting that Lin's mind works on a whole other level from anything anyone had seen before.

(And for those who need closure: "I don't know about God but I believe in Chris Jackson" is your clue about why it matters. Lin has kept Chris by his side and worked to create pieces that highlight Chris's voice and talents, such as the original role of Benny in In the Heights. Lin has referred to the West Wing line of "As long as I have a job, you have a job" when describing his feelings about Chris. In the movie of In the Heights Lin steps away from the role of Usnavi to play Piragüero. So naturally to have Chris in the movie he'd be placed in direct relationship to Lin by being Mister Softee.)

(I never said it was hilarious, I said it was obvious. Again: we had lonely childhoods. Let us have this.)


But even with that legendary Tony moment and wins for himself an the show, Lin and In the Heights didn't rise to much fame. In the Heights was still the "Yeah it sounds okay but are we really that interested in salsa music?" musical (again: never said racism wasn't a factor here) and for the most part Lin got more work based on his freestyle skills than anything else. For example, he was the one making the on the spot closing rap numbers for Neil Patrick Harris to perform when he hosted the Tonys. Still amazing, don't get me wrong, but to a certain extent you can see how this put Lin in a bit of a spot of being not unlike a dancing animal in a circus: he's got a neat trick and all people asked him to do was perform it.

Now granted this is a simplification. He was doing work on other musicals and had deliberately kept quiet about it so that he had the mental space to figure out his next show without too many judgmental eyes on him. That next show was Hamilton so this was a great move. At the same time we're talking about public perception of both him and In the Heights and why In the Heights didn't blast out of the gate with the love and adulation that Hamilton got and this is part of the reason.

All of which is to bring us back to the movie and why I think it's succeeding where the stage version didn't. First up, because people have learned to understand that Lin is a once in a lifetime talent. We now know that if Lin scribbles a few words down on a gum wrapper they're worth paying attention to, let alone when he shares a whole musical. But also because I think the concept of In the Heights works better in film than on the stage.

First and foremost, a movie reaches people that the stage cannot. Now I could go into a whole rant about the concept of why Broadway shows both need Broadway stages and why there should still be versions of those shows which disabled people like myself can still watch. I'll save that for another day.

For now point being that, as I said, In the Heights didn't really work for the tourist and local Broadway audience. But for an international audience? Yes! Because now people who would never go to Broadway are being introduced to stories and characters they also never see: either because they don't know people like this or because they are people like this who sadly do not see themselves represented enough in popular culture.

Second, the movie format allows for ways to make these every day moments seem more magical and momentous than they seem. I'll get more into this when we talk about the dancing but if you can perform 96,000 with a handful of people on a stage or with hundreds of people in a giant pool, which one of them comes off as more impressive and interesting?

I would go so far as to argue that In the Heights was always meant to be a film instead of a stage show. But it couldn't be the film it is now without Lin's success and many years of hard work by him and everyone involved to get the film made that we have in front of us today. Which is to say a film which respects the source material, only changes what needs to be adjusted for either the passage of time or the needs of a movie, and gives full life to the songs that tell the tale.

Speaking of, let's talk about dancing.

Christopher Scott, Jon M. Chu, and Extraordinary Dancing

First up, let me make sure that when we talk about the choreography in the movie we are not ignoring the work of Ebony Williams, Emilio Dorsal, Dana Wilson, Eddie Torres Jr, and Princess Serrano, all of whom also did choreography for the film, the latter two focusing on Latin dancing in particular (sidenote: Hey IMDB? Wanna show choreographers a little more love please so I can link their resumes and not their Instagrams? Thank you). The only reason I am not calling out their work specifically is that I am not yet familiar enough with them to be able to say for certain what parts they did. Believe me, I will be hunting down everything of theirs I can find so I can learn.

But coming into this the one I knew was Christopher Scott.

I have been a fan of Christopher Scott's for years. Double checking some facts on Wikipedia lets me know I can actually say this has gone on for over a decade so, yanno, tiny bit of familiarity with the guy. If nothing else I could probably go in and circle the bits that aren't Chris and between that and the Latin dance numbers we could start narrowing down what the others did. I am also aware this starts sounding like I am the choreography fan version of a crazed detective with some string and a bulletin board. I accept this assessment of my obsession about dancing and regard it as fair.

I love dancing. All dancing. Well, almost all dancing. Contemporary can go fuck itself and it knows why.

(If I wanted to watch girls in cami dresses flail around and clutch their stomach like they aren't sure if they've been shot or are about to throw up I would've joined a sorority, okay? Thank you. Moving on.)

When I heard that Christopher and Jon were working on In the Heights I was thrilled. I knew immediately these were two people who would be so right for the job. And I knew that because of something called The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers or the LXD.

(See what I did there? With the subheading? I'm clever like that.)

The LXD was a web series from back when web series were just starting to be a thing. It was a series of shorts about dancers where dance was used as a way to channel super powers. It was gorgeous, it was brilliant, it was gone too soon.

It's also sadly hard to link to because, like many things from the early days of streaming, it hit several platforms and copyright eventually became a nightmare. You can find some parts in some places though.

But from things like The LXD and the Step Up movies, I knew that Jon M. Chu respected dance and dancers. He respected the idea that dance is one way to tell a story and has to be shown as such. When you watch dance under Jon's direction you can actually see the dance which is sadly far too remarkable in and of itself these days. (And let's give props to the cinematographers and editors he works with, like Alice Brooks and Myron Kerstein, who ensure that respect and vision get filmed and make it to the final cut.)

Jon respects dance so much that he understands when a scene needs movement in order to work, such as his last minute change to the proposal scene in Crazy Rich Asians. (Crazy Rich Asians also being where he proved that he understood you need to get the tiny details of a culture into a movie about that culture in order to be respectful and authentic.) So putting Jon in charge of a movie musical is simply common sense.

And you see this play out in the way that the movie is shot. Usnavi doesn't just tell us the streets are made with music, everyone's movements go to music as well. The spray of a hose hits on the beat, Usnavi and Sonny price canned goods in rhythm, and so on. We're seeing song and dance all around us even before a big choregraphed number hits the screen.

Speaking of choreography...

Christopher Scott is a dancer and choreographer. If I had to summarize Christopher's talents into an elevator pitch it's that he combines and recontextualizes different dance styles to tell unexpected stories. Case in point, this clip of the LXD in a performance.

What you have in that two minute routine is about 10 different forms of dance styles, most of them street, being choreographed together in a high art staging combined with a remix of a pop culture song as performed by a string quartet. These are things people normally give zero respect to as a form of dance, let alone as a way to tell a story, being put on a stage with the honor that is normally only shown to styles like ballet.

(Me being me I have to stop and point out that if you want just one sign of how good Chris is at his job, just watch the dancer at the beginning and end. He's doing botting, the dance that is the go to for anybody who wants to make fun of street styles. In Chris's hands - and the hands of the dancer, Madd Chadd - you not only appreciate the control and precision which is necessary to do botting well, but you see it performed in a way that is melancholy. Where else can you find something like that?)

Of course he's also done the opposite: Ballet to dubstep, high art as street style.

Can you think of someone who has done the same thing with forms of music which also tend to be considered too lowly to be considered art? Someone who, say, recontextualizes music and lyrics and uses them to tell stories about people who normally never get to be seen?

Yeah. Chris is absolutely perfect for working with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I could go on for a thousand years about Chris's work, such as his ability to combine multiple dance styles along with the movement of a natural object like sand, how he enjoys a good duet about people in love, or using dancers in suits and hats to highlight the emotions of a crowd, or how he likes bringing in talented younger dancers to tell generational stories, or maybe I can now just point at the In The Heights Movie Will Smith style and you can start to get why I was flailing at the screen going "LOOK! LOOK AT WHY I LOVE HIM SO! LOOK AT HIM DO WHAT HE DOES BEST!"

Ahem. Respectfully. I swear there's no bulletin board with string. A few YouTube playlists but that's it, promise.

Once you watch a few videos of Chris's work you start to pick up on his language. I mean the crowd outside of the bodega in the opening number couldn't have had more Christopher Scott moments if he personally was playing the role of every dancer for the parts which were his choreography. As for 96,000, if you can find a choreographer who can oversee hundreds of dancers, extras, and include everything from ballet to FlexN to old school Hollywood in a single number for god's sake clone them because so far we've only got the one.

(If you haven't yet, read this article about what went into the making of the pool scene. Everyone involved deserves Oscars for that alone, believe me.)

Another thing to keep in mind about Chris's choreography for the film is that there are homages to the stage show in it as well. Andy Blankenbuehler did the original choreography for In the Heights (as well as Hamilton) and he's a genius in his own right. But the work he did for the show is very specific to the stage. By which I mean he choreographs to the space of the stage and how it feels to the dancers and looks to the audience. It's a different show but a good example is how in Room Where It Happens in Hamilton the dancers are actually sketching out the outline of a room. Great for a stage performance, does not translate well for something like In the Heights where the movie takes place on location.

If you watch the In the Heights Tony performance, which combines bits of the opening and 96,000, you can start to see what I'm talking about. You can see the connections in the moments of the background dancers which tie in to the movie's opening dance number, and how the circling dance of 96,000 which blows up to the enormous circles in circles in circles of the pool.

So yeah. Look at Jon's history. Look at Chris's history. Look at Lin's history. Then appreciate how those paths have led to making this amazing movie.

(Oh, and if you think you recognize some dancers in the linked videos when you watch In the Heights, you'd be right.)


As always, the bits that didn't fit anywhere else.

  • I want to give a huge shout out to Warner Brothers and HBO Max for making this movie available via streaming. I know it was done for the pandemic but as someone with a disability who can't go into theaters anymore I am so, SO grateful that I was still able to watch on opening weekend. It breaks my heart when I look out over the year and see how many movies are being taken out of the reach of me and people who are like me (looking RIGHT AT YOU DISNEY AND MARVEL). So much love, gratitude, and appreciation that Warner Brothers, at least, didn't snatch this away. Thank you.
  • Speaking of accessibility though, the closed captions far too often went to "[Speaking Spanish]" instead of showing the words. I'm pretty sure hard of hearing Spanish speakers would like to know what those words were. They should've been included.
  • A short Anatomy of a Scene with Jon M. Chu talking about the opening. He mentions how even the use of the iPad had choreography, on the odd chance you doubted me when I talked about his understanding of filming music and dance.
  • A featurette on the choreography. Among the things they talk about is how important it was for them to authentically represent the dance styles of Washington Heights, like salsa on the 2, a well as the styles of where each character was from. Well worth a watch.
  • Christopher Scott breaks down the choreography of In the Heights and other movie musicals for Vanity Fair.
  • The Root has a good interview with Jon M. Chu, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, and Melissa Barrera about the lack of dark-skinned Latine people in the movie. I have my own theories about why that happened - in addition to the obvious reason of bias towards light-skinned actors - but I also understand this is one of those times when white folks like me should shut up and let the people of the communities in question speak. So yeah. Go listen there.
  • I'm not unique in noticing this but even so, props to how Nina comes home with flat ironed hair which becomes more natural the more time she spends at home.
  • Shout out to the sweat stains on everyone's clothes even though parts of the film were shot on days which were unseasonably cold. (Sadly including the pool scene. For real read that article if you haven't.)
  • Loved the cameos of Lin's parents as well as "You'll Be Back" as hold music.
  • My sympathies and support to the many sewists, cosplayers, and costumers who laughed themselves sick at the idea that Vanessa would be able to make that many outfits in less than 12 hours.
  • A list of every movement and homage would take forever but I'll start with a shout-out to Usnavi channeling Eminem from 8 Mile when he was dogging Graffiti Pete at the start of 96,000.
  • Among the changes from the stage version that I liked, I appreciated clearly making Daniela and Carla a couple. Not only because it increases representation, but because it makes the shock of the joke about the guy being caught with a man more about the insult of him cheating as opposed to hinting at homophobia. It also changes the meaning of the "Just between you and me" line from 96,000 to be a sweet acknowledgement that they'd share the winnings.
  • Likewise a professional golfer like Tiger Woods is a much better reference for a caddy and Obi-Wan is MUCH better than the original which shall be left unspoken for the casual racism that it was.
  • Another bit of representation I loved: the many forms of the ballet dancers Vanessa walks by at the pool. I imagine there's a lot of kids who saw themselves in those kinds of dancers for the very first time.
  • Speaking of dancers, I was going to ask why in the hell, out of all the options in the New York tri-state area, you would give a part to Tyce Diorio but then I remembered that if Every Little Step has taught us anything it's that the most dangerous spot in the city is between Tyce and a camera filming a dance routine.
  • I'm not saying Tyce would shove a small child down a set of stairs in order to make sure he got into a part in a famous musical, I'm just saying I asked a friend of mine "What's the subway stop that's got the huge fuck off staircase?" just so I would have correctly fact checked the related punchline if I said that Tyce would specifically shove a small child down the steps of the 181 St A station.
  • Allegedly.
  • On the plus side: ALEX FREAKING WONG!
  • Look I TOLD YOU I HAVE FEELINGS ABOUT DANCE AND DANCERS. You've already come on a 1000+ word journey of me talking about dance alone. You are far too late to back out now.
  • Especially since I'm done. For now. Assuming I don't flail about anything else. I just might. You should follow me on socials if you haven't already since that's where I'm most likely to do it.
  • Also I hear there's a mailing list which is often useful for that sort of thing.
  • Oh look, there's the details about it! Thanks for reading!


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