In the Heights – movie review

Before Hamilton, there was In the Heights. Cultural phenomenon Lin-Manuel Miranda finally brings his Broadway musical about the largely Latin-American community of Washington Heights to the big screen. He once again collabs with Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the book for the musical) and brings in Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) to direct. The result is a film musical filled with colour and vibrancy. And while filmed musicals are always fraught, the film’s sheer exuberance keeps it bubbling along.

I usually have a problem with the artifice of film musicals, but Chu wisely leans into the make-believe of it all. This means the film basically becomes a series of – often spectacular – set pieces. And while the plot threads holding these scenes together are flimsy, this isn’t some intense psychological drama. It’s light but heartfelt; and I suspect many will leave smiling.

The film follows several plot threads, though the romance between Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is at its core. Usnavi and Vanessa both have big dreams – he wants to go back to his native Dominican Republic; while she wants to be an upscale fashion designer. But both are struggling to achieve what they want. Another – at least potential – romance features Nina (Leslie Grace), newly home from university in California; and Usnavi’s friend Benny (Corey Hawkins). Nina is struggling with life at Stanford, which brings her into conflict with her aspirational father and local businessman Kevin (Jimmy Smiths). Usnavi meanwhile is also trying to help out his younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) to fit in. And providing a calming maternal influence over the whole neighbourhood is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz).

The film however is more about the life of Washington Heights than it is about any one character. The neighbourhood, at least as depicted in the film, takes on almost a life of its own. And on that level, the film definitely works. When it comes down to the fine grain of the individual characters’ journeys, it’s a little thinner. But any shortcomings in that area are soon washed away in the tidal wave of fun and goodwill the film generates.

Chu and his writers make several smart choices to break the film out of its stage origins. A key one was to shoot mostly on location in Washington Heights. This allows, for example, for the fabulous sequence over the song “96,000”. It also lends authenticity to the setting in a sweltering summer. The film uses a framing device of Usnavi telling his story to a group of kids. This wasn’t in the stage show, and by the end you’ll understand why (no spoilers). And it introduces a new storyline involving Sonny that also wasn’t in the show.

I need to make special mention of the music. While the bedrock is Miranda’s trademark showtunes-meets-rap style, the soundtrack covers at least part of the huge variety of Latin music. Samba, bolero, jazz, salsa, and bossa all feature at some point. And they meld into a fantastic musical kaleidoscope.

Another smart choice was to use seasoned theatrical performances – rather than Hollywood stars – in the key roles. Anthony Ramos – who performed in Hamilton – delivers a smart and charming performance as Usnavi (the character’s unusual name is explained in the film, by the way). Melissa Barrera (Vida) though shades him as the fiercely determined Vanessa. Leslie Grace and Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) are less prominent as Nina and Benny, but still deliver some wonderful moments (their “goodbye” number is brilliantly staged). Jimmy Smits (Rogue One) is great though subdued as the conflicted Kevin. But Olga Merediz walks away with the film as Abuela Claudia. Her big scene (again, no spoilers) is stunning.

In the Heights was released in cinemas in the US following that country’s vaccine drive. Hollywood hopes it will be the flagship drive box office after an understandably lean year. And it deserves to. I’m normally not one for a film musical (I find characters breaking into song a bit too artificial). But Chu and Miranda (who has a small cameo in the film) drew me into this world and its characters so cleverly that by the end, I was converted. If you’re tired of dour dramas and looking for something joyful in your life right now, you should definitely give In the Heights a go.

David Edwards

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