In the Heights
Once more unto the breach and into the magical world of musical cinema with another insight into the wonderfully creative mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda. This time it is the 2008 stage musical In the Heights that has received a Hollywood treatment, and the sweltering streets of Washington Heights New York, where music rumbles down each side alley and rhythm runs through every living fibre, have been brought to life in a vibrant eruption of colour, fiesta and sense of community.
In the Heights is the feel-good film of the year, so full of life, charm and colour, it’s impossible not to succumb to this contagious charm. The production is an explosion of Latino culture and music, embodied in a theatrical plot lead by Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, a bodega owner who dreams of one day moving back to the Dominican Republic to restore his late father’s beachside bar and find a better life. Parallel story lines include those of his romantic interest and aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and close friends and former lovers Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). As the temperature rises the characters hurtle towards an electrical blackout, testing the community of Washington Heights and presenting a new challenge for them all to overcome.
From the opening number to the grand finale, it is abundantly clear that this story was made for the stage, rather than the silver screen, but nonetheless Jon M Chu has admirably and successfully made the transition as graceful as he can, with mind-blowing cinematography that is beautiful, snappy, sharp and imaginative all at the same time. This exciting visual element, partnered with an immensely talented cast, is already enough to make In the Heights a delightful 143-minute romp, but Chu and Miranda take it further, capitalising on the latter’s superb musical numbers and lyric writing prowess, and meshing the sequences together with utterly exhausting choreography. The movie becomes relentless in its infectiousness and the viewer, too, becomes inspired to dream big.
The film does address a number of topical social issues, including class struggles, the dreamers in the United States and racism, albeit quite lightly and not directly in vision, which is a shame. Ultimately it is the ambiguity surrounding these issues that becomes one of the main flaws in the film and its narrative. It’s ripe for comparisons with West Side Story for obvious reasons, but it must be said there is certainly a lot more conflict and peril in the Bernstein and Sondheim musical. Oddly, it is the more serious and dramatic exchanges with strict dialogue that prove the most gripping viewing, and one finds oneself crying out for more as this sense of danger or climax is suddenly washed away in another flood of singing and dancing – one common and unfortunate flaw of a musical adapted for screen.
However, thanks to Chu’s direction and the performances of Ramos, Barrera, Hawkins and many others, the musical is the gangbuster summer film that the world needs. In the Heights provides something new for underserved audiences, and it will certainly live long in the memory and hearts of its fans.
In the Heights is released on 18th June 2021.
Watch the trailer for In the Heights here: