IN THE HEIGHTS (2021)
A sympathetic New York bodega owner saves every penny every day as he imagines and sings about a better life.
Lin-Manuel Miranda debuted his stage musical In The Heights back in 2005. It went on to Broadway in 2008, later winning a Tony Award. And its themes of gentrification, community, and undocumented immigrants only feel more relevant 16-years later on the big screen. Set in New York’s Washington Heights, this joyful musical depicts the lives of a mainly Dominican neighbourhood and their struggles to be seen in a world they feel unwanted in.
Usnavi (A Star is Born’s Anthony Ramos) owns a local bodega but dreams of buying and restoring his late father’s Dominican bar. Nina (Leslie Grace) is the first local girl to go to college but feels the pressure of the community to excel and rise up, and her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) can’t help putting all his hopes and dreams on her. Vanessa’s (Melissa Barrera) career aspirations promise to carry her downtown, whilst Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) has been priced out of her salon and forced to relocate to the Bronx.
After a nightmarish 2020, a celebration of communities feels especially joyful. In The Heights perfectly depicts resilience in numbers and how hard life can be when a community is fractured. The ‘barrio’ (district) is held together by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), one of the few characters who isn’t dreaming of a better life away from the neighbourhood. With a blackout looming on the neighbourhood, Washington Heights is at a vulnerable turning point. Their best and brightest don’t want to stick around, and their businesses are being brought out by white business owners who want to charge customers double. While the threat of gentrification looms, the conflict is more personal and relatable. They may be young immigrants or first-generation Americans, but their main concerns are about falling in love, being excited about their careers, and fighting for their beliefs.
Director John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) draws on classic Hollywood musicals for the song-and-dance numbers. From a public swimming pool being turned into a Busby Berkeley-influenced kaleidoscope of synchronised swimming, to in-sync waxing at the salon, and two lovers pirouetting up and down the walls of a building, Chu’s been inspired by classic cinema. This juxtaposition of iconic musical cinematography with the hip-hop influenced soundtrack is a smart way to freshen up the movie musical genre.
While many musical moments reject realism, the intergeneration story about immigrants chasing their American Dream is rooted in the real world. The modest dreams of Usnavi and his neighbourhood represent a whole country of immigrants working night and day to pursue their dreams.
In The Heights feels like it’s going to be a launchpad for a whole new generation of stars. Ramos lights up the screen delivering Miranda’s signature hip-hop-musical style straight to camera. Much of the narrative’s told by Ramos to four precocious children, explaining why Washington Heights should never be forgotten. It’s through his eyes we see the beauty in the mundane. For Usnavi, the streets are alive with music from the whooshing of water hydrants to the clacking of trolleys and the tapping of acrylic nails.
Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) plays Nina’s love interest, Benny, with a crooning charm reminiscent of Leslie Odon Jr.’s (Hamilton) in One Night in Miami (2020). Olga Merediz (who originated the role on Broadway) steals every scene she’s in with her warmth and understated performance as the neighbourhood grandma. Leslie Grace is sweet but forceful as Nina, a girl torn between the comfort of community and the good she knows she could do for immigrants by breaking the glass ceiling. Melissa Barrera is alluring and sultry as Vanessa, the neighbourhood pinup who wants more. There’s no doubt that any one of this cast will become a big star in the future.
In The Heights is joyful, poignant, and sad. Miranda’s songwriting has always excelled with changes in tempo and tone. In a big community pool-based set-piece where everyone’s singing over each other, excited at the prospect that one of them won the lottery, there’s one sombre voice who claims if the money were hers they’d never see her again. This musical technique gives the film texture as characters all sing over each other in different musical style, with the background dancers inspired by salsa, hip-hop, and ballet.
Perhaps the songs don’t have the staying power of Hamilton, but the cast delivers them with such charm you won’t care. Chu doesn’t do understated, with every musical number getting bigger, with more dancers and more locations. With salsa-influenced tracks that tell the day-to-day life of normal people, to romantic ballads and dramatic dance scenes, this spectacle is best seen on the big screen.
In The Heights never shies away from its heritage either. The dialogue slips between English, Spanish, and ‘Spanglish’ without always giving English-speakers the benefit of subtitles. It never tones the language or the way the characters speak to appease non-Spanish speaking audiences. Whilst Chu comes from a totally different background, he understands what Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ (who wrote the book for the musical) intentions are.
Perhaps, the 140-minute runtime does slightly put a damper on the joyous affair. Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes has slightly changed the musical’s story, rearranging the numbers to give this film a clearer focus, although the energy still flags towards the end. The new political energy regarding Dreamers (a bill that aimed to grant legal status to young immigrants in the US) and their uncertainty at their future does feel a little shoe-horned in during the final act. Usnavi and Vanessa’s will-they/won’t-they they relationship also grows a little familiar and tiring. The last 20-minutes get a little repetitive, especially when it’s obvious how it’ll end by that point, and the strange lack of a big musical finale will leave some very disappointed.
In The Heights is extravagant and lush, poignant, heart-breaking, empathetic, and idealistic. It celebrates a community where every two steps you bump into someone and their dream. Although it celebrates Latin culture, the characters are relatable to anyone who loves their neighbourhood but can’t help but wonder what their future could bring elsewhere.
USA | 143 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • SPANISH
director: John M. Chu.
writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes (based on the stage play by Quiara Alegría Hudes & Lin-Manuel Miranda).
starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV & Jimmy Smits.