Film & TV

A Case for In The Heights (2021)

Photo by James Ting on Unsplash

2021 was a mixed bag for movie musicals, from the critically acclaimed and award-winning West Side Story, to the pilloried disappointment that was Dear Evan Hansen. However, agonizingly, Jon M. Chu’s cinematic adaptation of In The Heights, the stage version by Lin-Manuel Miranda, flew pretty under the radar, despite seemingly being appreciatedon the whole – garnering an even 94% on Rotten Tomatoes for both the critic and audience score. Being completely overlooked during Hollywood’s 2022 Awards Season despite being so universally acclaimed, it’s time we bring In The Heights into the spotlight that it deserves again.

What made In The Heights so loved?

In The Heights could not have been the more perfect summer, mid-pandemic movie, which makes it a greater shame that so many people did not see it. Bursting with colour and catchy, show stopping musical numbers, it would have been the mood-lifting entertainment we all very much needed at the time. Immersed in this world of people trying to build their lives among love and music, it’s escapism at its finest.

Lin-Manuel Miranda also clearly knows how to produce musicals with mass appeal, and In The Heights is no exception. With his musical trademarks all resonant throughout the movie, it’s hard not to come out of it feeling pleased. Witnessing the cast obviously having a blast in the musical numbers really helps the audience feel it too – take the number “96,000”, which is bound to be a highlight for audiences.

Audience appeal aside, critics had many other points of greatness mentioned. Deborah Ross for The Spectator wrote that “the choreography (by Christopher Scott) is always terrific and there’s that unstoppable energy”, and Esther Zuckerman for Thrillist commended the ensemble, that “​​every single member of the cast is giving it their all, infusing their vocals and movements with life”. These are just two of the many words of praise critics offered up for the musical movie spectacle.

What went wrong?

Like many other movies with original releases in the 2020-2021 period, In The Heights had a change in its release date. Landing on an eventual mid June release date in the United States, it came out at a time where there were still persistent cinema closures nationwide (and worldwide), meaning that the prospective audience was already drastically lowered. To pile on this, Warner Bros. decided to release the film on HBO MAX a mere less than a month after theatrical release, giving audiences less incentive to venture out to the cinema in the pandemic-stricken world.

Unfortunately, all these factors combined contributed gravely to the movie’s eventual flop at the box office, making about a quarter of its $200 million break-even point. In countries without HBO MAX, this even meant that the movie failed to reach many markets around the world. Looking at its Box Office Mojo page, it didn’t have a wide theatrical release worldwide. Where it did open, the numbers were subpar. Perhaps the marketing wasn’t strong in these countries either.

Additionally, apart from modern musical icon Miranda being the creator of the project, and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu taking the directorial reins here too, In The Heights was not boosted by high-profile Hollywood actors in its ensemble.

While some names were big in certain circles, such as Anthony Ramos (Usnavi) in the Broadway community and Stephanie Beatriz (Carla) from the uber-popular Brooklyn Nine-Nine, none had experience as big feature film headliners (at the time at least, as Beatriz went on to lead the viral-hit Encanto), which could have been a contributing factor. While one could say a somewhat similar trend can be seen with West Side Story, but keep in mind legend Spielberg was at the helm.

In an alternate awards universe…

Had West Side Story not been released in the same year, In The Heights might have scored a chance at a nomination or two during the awards season, even if not for the Oscars. With the Golden Globes’ distinction of comedy/musical as a category, this would have been a good opportunity for Warner Bros. to campaign for it.

While I personally don’t think it would’ve gotten any individual acting nominations, especially given how crowded the categories usually are as it is, a nomination for the main motion picture award would have been plausible. With the ensemble-driven nature of In The Heights, a SAG nomination recognising their efforts would have been lovely to witness too. 

But alas, this is all retrospective wishful thinking. In The Heights had so much going for it, bringing a musical that the general public aren’t familiar with to the spotlight and showcasing how vibrant newer musical works can be. However, in the crowded, cramped theatrical slate of 2021, it unfortunately got lost in the current. If you’re wanting a feel-good film to get you into a groovy mood, go ahead and give In The Heights a chance.