This intrepid writer has seen a lot of films across his almost forty years. Indeed, 2021, despite all the delays, lockdowns and schedule realignments, has been a record-breaking year that has so far amassed 140+ films in the first six months. We can thank the new wonderful world of virtual film festivals for that total given how bereft we have been for new offerings thus far – for obvious reasons – but out of the thousands seen, one of them isn’t Hamilton. Not the film, not the show, not the fuss so going into In The Heights was something of a novelty. Any preconceptions of it being style over substance or the somewhat unique make-up of the music and lyrics were quickly dispelled for Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s much celebrated musical is an absolute joy.
Washington Heights, a part of NYC that’s as vibrant and energetic as any part of the city but one that is slowly dying due to the ever-moving economy and political landscapes. It’s the home of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, magnificent) who continues to run a local bodega his parents owned before they passed. He dreams of leaving the Heights behind and returning to the Dominican Republic, and even though he’d love nothing more than to take his secret love Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) with him, such dreams are hard to come by in current climates, as are those of his friends
Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace), who also hold aspirations of their own.
Many would argue that movie musicals aren’t what they used to be and “ain’t made like they used to be ” but the resurgence of the genre after La La Land and The Greatest Showman has become hard to ignore. Of course, Chicago, Hairspray and countless others have continued the charge over the years but in terms of original musicals, there haven’t been too many, seen as too risky unless it comes with the world famous “existing IP”. Well, if that’s the way of it, we are firmly on board, even more so after being bedazzled by Miranda and John M. Chu’s spectacular achievement that beautifully combines old and new, existing and fresh to brilliant effect as well as tackling some tough subject matters.
Much of In The Heights focuses on American Dream ideals and immigration, upper-middle class vs working class ones, representation and segregation but the heart of the film is about community: celebrating where you’re from, your culture, heritage, legacy and family, about finding your place in this crazy world we live in. And, through his signature lyrical hip-hop style, Miranda’s songs open our eyes to this part of the world barely seen or heard but one that we simply can’t take our eyes off.
Coupled with Chu’s turbulent yet controlled, lofty yet sharp direction – the pool sequence, in particular, is a symphony of excellent across the board- that combines old techniques with new and Alice Brooks‘ magical, mosaic cinematography, you can’t take your eyes – and ears – off it. It isn’t a supreme slam dunk, however, as some of the numbers and narrative threads that might have worked on stage feel a little superfluous and slightly clumsy at times, but they’re small bumps in an otherwise whirlwind of a cinematic experience.
In a time when we have been apart for so long so we can ultimately stay together, In The Heights is both the perfect return to the dark rooms many of us have missed but also a reminder of all that we have in this world, big or small, and that we should cherish each other as much as we possibly can. If there’s some music in the background, even better.
Music, Drama | USA, 2020 | 12A | Cinema | 16th June 2021 (UK) | Warner Bros Pictures | Dir.Jon M.Chu | Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jimmy Smits