REVIEW – ‘In the Heights’ is one of the most spectacularly enjoyable films of the year

With three Tony Awards, three Grammys, an Emmy, an Oscar nomination, and a Pulitzer Prize, it’s no surprise Lin-Manuel Miranda is the most in-demand man in Hollywood right now. In 2021, he’ll be responsible for composing original songs for not one but two animated films (Sony Pictures’ Vivo and Disney’s Encanto) plus make his feature directorial debut with Netflix’s musical Tick, Tick… Boom!. But up first this year is the highly-anticipated screen adaptation of the musical that made Miranda a star.

Back in 2007, a then-unknown Miranda burst onto the theatre scene with his Off-Broadway production In the Heights, which became a Broadway sensation in 2008 that won four Tony Awards including Best Musical. A film adaptation has been in the works ever since including a brief period where Miranda was set to co-produce the film with (gulp) now-disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein. After a full-year delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s finally lights up on Washington Heights and one of the most spectacularly enjoyable films of the year.

An unashamedly brash musical extravaganza brimming with vibrant energy and infectious heart, In the Heights is an absolute gem. A dazzling shot of adrenaline for the long-suffering cinema industry, it’s the kind of summer event film that deserves tremendous success. Anchored by a committed ensemble cast and an array of genuinely striking musical numbers, it’s richly entertaining and tremendously joyful.

Set over three scorching hot days in the leadup to a neighbourhood-wide blackout in Nueva York’s Washington Heights, In the Heights is the story of a community where everyone feels more like family. Wide-eyed orphaned dreamer Usnavi de la Vega (a star-making turn from the charming Anthony Ramos) spends his days running a quaint bodega in the hopes of earning enough dollars to return to the Dominican Republic to revive his father’s beloved beachside bar.

As the threat of gentrification looms over the neighbourhood, it appears Usnavi isn’t the only one looking to escape the Heights. Usnavi’s longtime unrequited crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) dreams of an apartment in Manhattan and a career as a fashion designer. His streetwise teenage cousin Sunny (Gregory Diaz IV) hopes to one day go to college without realising his undocumented status makes that an impossibility.

Meanwhile, Nina (Leslie Grace) has returned to the neighbourhood after her first semester at Stanford and immediately reconnects with her old flame Benny (Corey Hawkins). While her success at being the first in her family to attend college makes Nina the apple of her father’s (Jimmy Smits) eye, she has no intention of returning to California. Following all the gossip are a trio of hairdressers Cuca (Dascha Polanco), Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and her life partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), while community matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is ever-present with her love, advice, and care.

There are numerous narrative threads running throughout Quiara Alegria Hudes‘ screenplay and almost two-and-a-half hours of running time to barrel through them all. Adapting her Tony-nominated book, Hudes creates a wonderful host of beautifully rich and authentic characters audiences will connect with right from the titular opening number. Their community connection feels earned and genuine, almost inviting the viewer to join the family and its many eccentric members.

But, as a screenwriter, she juggles too many character arcs where not all are as strong as others and character development can often take a backseat to the numerous musical performances. Sunny’s predicament with potential deportation feels slightly undercooked and Vanessa’s plight appears almost frivolous by comparison to those around her. While Hawkins and Grace make a wonderful pairing, their burgeoning relationship feels too rushed to land its intended impact.

It’s a minor quibble in a film that honours and celebrates the immigrant experience with the kind of authenticity that can only be elicited from those who inherently understand this story. A landmark moment for Latin American representation on the big screen, director Jon M. Chu has assembled a terrific company of Latino actors to bring Miranda’s musical to life. There’s not a weak link in the chain here, largely thanks to the gorgeous chemistry radiating from one of the best ensemble casts you will see this year.

In his first major leading role, Ramos absolutely shines as the endlessly lovable Usnavi. As seen in last year’s live recording of Miranda’s wildly successful opus Hamilton and 2018’s A Star Is Born, Ramos is a marvellous performer with the innate ability to steal focus in supporting roles. But when finally given the opportunity to lead a production, he’s even better. Ramos delivers a charismatic performance that effortlessly cements the foundation of everything surrounding Usnavi and this chaotic narrative. We knew this boy could sing and rap, but his dance skills are just as impressive.

This review would be far too long if I sang the praises of every single cast member in great detail. Despite Vanessa’s narrative flaws, Barrera is a terrific delight and her chemistry with Ramos is electric. Hawkins is excellent as the love-sick Benny, while Grace is captivating as Nina and captures both her strength and vulnerability with ease. Rubin-Vega, Beatriz, and Polanco form a dynamite trio who liven up every scene with their sassy flair. Miranda even drops in for an extended cameo as Piraguero, a piragua (a shaved ice dessert) vendor, and keep your eyes peeled for an appearance from original Broadway cast member and Hamilton alumnus Christopher Jackson.

But the real scene-stealer proves to be veteran actor Merediz, who demands to be amongst the Best Supporting Actress chatter come awards season. Reprising her Tony-nominated role which she played for the Broadway production’s entire run (totalling 1,184 shows), Merediz’s Abuela Claudia is the film’s endearing soul. As the surrogate grandmother to everyone around her, Abuela imparts her wisdom, offers her neverending support, and encourages the dreams of the next generation of Latin immigrants. She’s the matriarch we’d all love to have and Merediz delivers a standout performance you will undoubtedly fall in love with.

And then there’s Miranda’s phenomenal soundtrack of sublime original songs. A dynamic fusion of hip hop, rap, Latin, pop, and Broadway styles, Miranda’s trademark rapid-fire lyrics are effortlessly handled by Chu’s talented ensemble cast. Whether he’s ingeniously introducing the entire roster of characters in the opening number or allowing Abuela to reflect on the hardships faced by immigrants and the sacrifices she’s made throughout her life in the show-stopping “Paciencia y Fe,” Miranda’s words are a work of art.

But it’s in Chu’s remarkable staging of the musical numbers where In the Heights truly soars. With influences from classic and modern Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and La La Land, the world of Bollywood, and, naturally, Latin American culture, Chu has crafted one of the most visually spectacular movie musicals of recent times. If you feel safe doing so, see In the Heights at the cinema. Chu’s sequences were designed to be seen on the largest screen possible, especially the lively performance of “96,000,” which is staged at New York’s Highbridge Pool and features hundreds of insanely talented background dancers and divine choreography (crafted by three-time Emmy nominee Christopher Scott) that pays deep homage to the work of Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams.

Whether it’s in the boisterous block party “Carnival del Barrio,” the fantastical beauty salon medley “No Me Diga,” or the neon-drench tearjerker “Paciencia y Fe,” Chu’s flair for theatrics perfectly complements Miranda’s music. His work reaches a crescendo in Nina and Benny’s sweeping ballad “When the Sun Goes Down,” a sequence that literally defies gravity and finds our two lovebirds dancing on the side of a building. These sequences are only further elevated by Mitchell Travers’ colourful costume designs, Alice Brooks‘ fresh cinematography, and the crisp editing of Myron Kerstein.

For all its joyful exuberance, there is a fiery undercurrent of anger permeating through Miranda’s lyrics and Hudes script. The original musical was written in a pre-Trump world, allowing Hudes the opportunity to update her narrative to better reflect the immigrant experience of recent years, particularly the previous administration’s attacks on immigration and Trump’s attempts to dismantle Obama’s DACA program. Without ever feeling preachy, the topic of the gentrification of the barrio is expertly handled, as Hudes demands an audience understand Washington Heights isn’t naturally modernising, but rather being essentially stolen from the people who have lived there for decades.

While the two-hour-plus running time does prove slightly excessive, Chu keeps proceedings moving at a cracking pace, meaning the film rarely lags. The electrifying spirit running through every scene is rather intoxicating and it was difficult to keep a smile off my face throughout this entire film. After the miserable year we all had in 2020, the timing is perfect for a lavish, splashy movie musical that pays tribute to love, music, culture, and community. A rapturous spectacle that will leave you yearning to dance in the streets, In the Heights is a total blast.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Patrick Page, Noah Catala, Marc Anthony, Christopher Jackson
Director: Jon M. Chu
Producers: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Scott Sanders, Anthony Bregman, Mara Jacobs
Screenplay: Quiara Alegria Hudes
Cinematography: Alice Brooks
Production Design: Nelson Coates
Costume Design: Mitchell Travers
Editor: Myron Kerstein
Music: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman

Running Time: 143 minutes
Release Date: 24th June 2021 (Australia)