The Plot: It’s a hot summer week in the upper Manhattan borough of Washington Heights. As the clock ticks down to an impending black-out, we meet the colourful characters in this lively Latinx neighbourhood. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) runs a grocery store, but is holding on to his ‘el suenito’ – his little dream of returning to his childhood home in the Dominican Republic. Now pushing 30, he’s keen to move on and find a better life. The sassy woman he has his eye on, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), wants to move on from working in a salon to starting her own business. Their friend Nina (Leslie Grace) is on a break from Stanford University way out west, something which troubles her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and her boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins). Somewhere on these streets, in this barrio, there’s an answer for them all…
The Verdict: After a year-long delay, the film version of hit Broadway musical In The Heights has arrived in an appropriate summer slot. The delay was just as well, as it might not have worked as well in the dark days of winter when people’s minds were occupied with other things. For this is a pure blast, a ray of bottled summer sunshine straight to your senses to be seen on the biggest (and loudest) cinema screen you can find. It comes from the mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the toast of Broadway and occasional film actor (he cameos here as a cold drinks vendor). It portrays an eventful few days in the lives of a group of ambitious characters who dream of bigger things beyond their close-knit neighbourhood.
Washington Heights is part of them and their life experiences so far, but it doesn’t define them. Only the future can define them – or so we think early on. For a filmed musical set in and about a real-life neighbourhood, In The Heights doesn’t try to prettify it or add too much grit so that it becomes a fantasy place at the northern tip of Manhattan island. Washington Heights is as much a character here as the human characters, with a carefully-judged balance of reality with the kind of flights of fancy common to Hollywood musicals. It’s interesting then that the director is Jon M. Chu, who turned ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ into a surprise hit and which made crazy amounts of money. Drawing inspiration from New York favourites ‘Do The Right Thing’ and ‘Annie Hall’, his dream big aesthetic and appreciation for ethnic flavour translates into what will likely be another hit for pandemic-weary audiences.
The musical elements work a dream themselves (and this coming from a reviewer who isn’t partial to musicals). Instead of an exhausting non-stop singathon like a certain French Revolution musical, the occasional songs are used as an expression of feelings, hopes and ambitions for its multiple characters of varying ages. The songs have a purpose and that’s reinforced by the sound of the Latinx culture, which mixes traditional ballads with group songs and even pumping rap in the song ‘96,000’ to lively effect. The result is a film that is regularly on its feet, hopping about but keeping it local. Musical skeptics might find themselves won over by its sunny disposition, while musical fans will be along for the ride. Any film that features a scene in which Jimmy Smits belts out an early morning tune in a grocery store is worthy of some praise after all.
Shot simultaneously a few blocks away from this year’s other big musical adaptation (West Side Story), In The Heights would be acceptable entertainment with the colourful song and dance routines alone. One of them even defies gravity, Singin’ In The Rain-style for a visually striking sequence. What elevates it to something different and more resonant is a grounded basis in reality with flawed, relatable characters finding their way out when it could be right in front of them. Miranda and Chu have achieved the right tone of hope and positivity in the face of crushing reality – but what a reality which embraces change and progress. It’s a film for dreamers everywhere, which sounds wishy-washy but thankfully isn’t due to the right, toe-tapping tone throughout. There’s much to admire here as Miranda and Chu hit more than just musical heights for a joyous cinematic experience to be savoured. There’s even a delightful post-credits scene if you can wait. Over to you, Senor Spielberg.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In The Heights
In The Heights (USA / 12A / 143 mins)
In short: Hits the heights
Directed by Jon M. Chu.
Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits.