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Review: In The Heights – “A musical that’s very cinematic”

Are musicals back? The Greatest Showman made millions based on the thinnest of ideas sprouting while Hugh Jackman hosted the Oscars. La La Land went one better, setting the bar for a modern approach to the genre and winning Oscars in the process. Lin Manuel Miranda wasn’t looking at the movies, his heart belonged to the stage, so in college (back in the last century) he wrote In The Heights, premiering in 2005. A mere 16 years later, and partly due to the success of a little show also written by Miranda called Hamilton, In The Heights gets its film debut.

Director Jon M Chu (Crazy, Rich Asians) takes the story of Caribbean and Central American immigrants who reside in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of NYC’s Manhattan and pulls out all the stops –  making a musical that’s very cinematic. 

In The Heights starts with the story of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega (corner shop) owner about to realise his dream of returning to the Dominican Republic to buy back his father’s beach bar. Usnavi is close to Claudia, everyone’s Abuela (the Spanish for grandma, played wonderfully by Olga Merediz) a woman who counts all the people in the Heights as her adoptees. In the Heights, everyone is connected. Usnavi’s young friend Sonny (Gregory Diaz) helps him run the bodega, where everyone comes in for soda, including Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and his Stanford-attending daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), Usnavi crushe Vanessa, who dreams of moving from hairdressing to fashion design (Melissa Barrera) and Usnavi’s friend Benny who works for Kevin and pines for Nina (Corey Hawkins). The characters’ lives intertwine over a few days as they suffer the effects of the famous 1977 New York blackout, which disproportionately affected Washington Heights, leaving them with no power for 48 hours at temperatures of over 100 degrees.

The cast, none with significant fame, are very well-cast and sing beautifully and this review won’t do all their work justice (shout out to Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela). The familiar rap-to-tune wordsmithery of Hamilton was founded here, and Miranda makes a cute cameo. The choreography is perfect and, better this film is educational. Chu already has a jam-packed script to work from, but he also manages to weave in a story of modern immigration problems. The film is a celebration of latinx spirit with the same energy of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, taking the struggles of the day-to-day poor and surrounding them with pride, hope and vivid colour. In fact, So much of In The Heights works, it’s hard to put a finger on why it isn’t a five-star movie. 

The first reason may be about the expectations put on Miranda. Similarly to when watching a film made from an Aaron Sorkin script, In the Heights muddies the waters between Chu’s stylistic influence and Miranda’s original intentions. Many plot points have changed from the show and this rougher, smaller story than that told in Hamilton, illuminates the idea that Miranda was still honing his craft.

But, mostly, the biggest problem with In the Heights is that parts of the film are baffling. For one, Chu seems to have a problem with mothers. There is no reference whatsoever to any of the lead characters’ mothers (of which there are at least five characters whose parents feature in the show). It’s as if by the film concentrating on Abuela’s story, all the other mothers must be removed. The film also drifts in and out from the minutiae of life (town gossip, tide pens) to deep issues like death, religion and the reality of being Latinx in the 70s – without any change in tempo. It’s hard to know whether Chu wants to paint the picture that everything is serious or nothing is, as he places harsh story threads (drug dealing, child abandonment) up against lightweight gags at hyper-stylised, breakneck pace.

Anyone who appreciates musicals will enjoy In The Heights. Miranda has written something that rightly celebrates a specific Latinx experience, and Chu has presented these stories with panache. It’s just not Hamilton

In The Heights hits the US on 11th June and then opens in the UK on 18th June 2021.

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