In the Heights is the perfect post-pandemic movie

The Broadway adaptation is a celebration of community, and a great reminder of how fun going to the theater can be

In the Heights.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Warner Bros. Pictures, iStock)

"Before the 'flu' arrived, some of us may have felt of the motion picture that we could 'take it or leave it alone.' Our belief is slipping."

So wrote the Chicago Herald and Examiner in October 1918, only a few weeks after Hollywood announced it would stop sending new releases to theaters until the Spanish influenza pandemic was under control. Only later would historians recognize the period as being the deadliest month of the outbreak in the United States; indeed, it could seem to readers now like a strange time for the Herald and Examiner's editors to be waxing poetic about something as frivolous as how much "We Miss Our Movies."

More than a century later, though, Americans who've passed months of quarantine with the modern conveniences of Netflix and virtual cinemas might likewise consider the motion picture — as it's projected in a theater, anyway — to be something to take or leave. But it is movies like In the Heights that are poised to remind audiences just how essential and joyous the theatrical experience can be.

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Shot during the summer of 2019 in the far-north Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, In the Heights was originally supposed to come out in June 2020 before getting delayed almost a full year. It will finally be released in theaters on June 11, while simultaneously heading to streaming on HBO Max. As the country reopens and theatergoing is deemed safe again for vaccinated Americans, In the Heights represents a sort of post-pandemic crossroads for new releases. Audiences will get to choose between seeing it big and loud among a group of strangers or watching from the convenience (and lower cost) of their couch.

But while the filmmakers of course had no way of knowing it at the time, In the Heights turned out to be the perfect post-pandemic film. Based on the 2008 Broadway show that was Lin-Manuel Miranda's precursor to Hamilton, the story focuses on the affairs of a predominantly Dominican neighborhood during the hottest days of the summer. And it is a massive production; at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, it feels more like something belonging to classic Hollywood's grandiose studio system era than the 21st century, when the only movies that get the opportunity to be that big tend to involve superheroes.

The cast alone includes more extras than most members of the audience likely saw during all of quarantine. One musical number in particular, "96,000," reportedly involved more than 500 dancers in a pool — a scene that is so COVID-unfriendly that it's actually almost startling to remember oh, right, we used to be able to do that sort of thing without thinking of germs.

In the Heights isn't without its flaws: The soundtrack and story are less developed than Hamilton (though there's a cute inside joke for fans of the latter musical, which I won't spoil here). Bringing in fantastical CGI elements (giant rolls of fabric falling from the roofs of brownstones; sketched objects ping-ponging between characters' hands) can be overkill when we're already busy suspending our disbelief that everyone is walking around belting their thoughts out loud. Even modern updates to the script — like a brief DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) plotline, references to microaggressions and gentrification, and a shout-out of Sonia Sotomayor — come across as ham-fisted attempts to prove how "important" or "topical" the project is. Most bewildering of all is the film's transparent Tide Pen product placement.

But In the Heights is also a genuine celebration of community, something that resonates after being physically removed from most of ours for a year. In particular, the focus on the vibrancy of the diverse Washington Heights neighborhood, which was disproportionally hammered during New York's outbreak, reads now like a declaration of resiliency. While Steven Spielberg is at work on a rival musical about what is now one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city with his remake of West Side Story, In the Heights seems not only to give a voice to the modern Latino community that says we're here, but also: and we've been here.

Adding to the charm are relative newcomers like Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Gregory Diaz IV, and Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos, who are naturals on the set (credit to director Jon M. Chu for orchestrating the terrific performances all around). Plus, there's just something totally infectious about watching what essentially amounts to an extended party on-screen, in a crowd full of strangers who are as excited about the novelty of being back in a theater as you are. You can't get that in your living room.

We're at a junction, though, when people are going to have to make that decision for themselves — something Warner Bros. acknowledges with its controversial duel-release strategy. But if you have any doubt about the theatrical movie-going experience, In the Heights is the film to assuage it. It's big, it's beautiful, and it'll make you believe.

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