It takes a lot to love… no, get by… a musical. At a cynical time like this one, the idea of suspending your disbelief for a song-and-dance routine could feel like the perfect remedy, or just an added burden. If you’re from the latter line of thought, welcome to ‘In the Heights,’ Lin-Manuel Miranda’s vibrant and joyful ode to his New York - one that will easily turn you into a believer. Sure, it’s not the same level of phenomena as that other Miranda musical that everyone talks about (and can sing by heart), but it is as densely packed with smart wordplay and inclusive multicultural representation as any cultural landmark of the new millennium. ‘In the Heights’ is based on the Tony-winning 2008 musical of the same name, and this wonderful adaptation manages to incorporate all the colours and splashing movements of its original staging, as well as the wondrous technicalities that allow for more freedom on film.
What is the story about?
The predominantly Latino locality of Washington Heights (further north of the upper West Side of Manhattan) is home to Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young man who spends his days and nights running a bodega left to him by his late parents. His dream, however, is to return to the Dominican Republic and honour the feeling of family and home. The other characters around the area are Usnavi’s friends - Benny (Corey Hawkins), cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and Nina (Leslie Grace). Together, all of them strive to go above and beyond the realities of Washington Heights, a place where their parents and grandparents would have tirelessly put down their roots. The story is told by Usnavi to a group of bright-eyed kids, and they listen (and participate) in awe about this energetic and pulsating area which is defined by the groups of people that make up its inhabitants.
A story which spans just about four days in the height of the New York summer, ‘In The Heights’ is actually pretty straight-forward in terms of plot (as most musicals are). It’s about two couples who seem to be faced with many odds to be together. Usnavi can’t wait to get back to the Dominican, even as he harbours a strong interest in the ambitious and talented Vanessa, a would-be fashion designer. Meanwhile, Nina is back from one of her semesters at Stanford and attempting to rekindle a romance with non-Latino Benny, an off-license taxi dispatcher. The musical struggles to bring together all of its stories to answer generally larger questions about race, identity and belonging. Instead, most of its themes seem more like vignettes that are smattered together. At the end, the question itself is a rather simple one - will love conquer distance and/or disapproval? If you are looking for an exponentially more layered plot, go for Hamilton. But that doesn’t diminish ‘In the Heights’’ value. The over-simplicity, melodrama and often repetitive tropes of this show are minor flaws in front of how cheerful, inspirational and well crafted it is. You won’t be able to un-hear those characteristically eclectic beats and lyrical tics that make Miranda’s work unique. And the best part is that it comes in a package that is so light and cinema-friendly.
Jon M. Chu (who has previously helmed another extravagantly romantic and cultural tale, Crazy Rich Asians) takes Miranda’s staging and springboards it into real locations. As the glorious opening number unravels itself piece by piece, character by character, introducing us to each of the Height-ians and the overarching themes that will make up their stories, we can’t help but sway along. But there is also the magical realism of cinema where two lovers pirouette on the walls of a building defying gravity. The local beauty salon has wigged mannequins who watch in horror as a main character makes a grand revelation, and a sequence at a swimming pool is a colourful kaleidoscope of formation and movement.
But none of this is possible without the film’s talented cast - Ramos with his natural charm, Barrera and Grace who are the hard-working and idealistic women representing their gender and their community. And veteran stars like Jimmy Smits, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Olga Merediz, all of whom get their moments to shine in both emotional as well as fun and saucy numbers. It works in their favour that the characters of ‘In the Heights’ aren’t meant to represent tired tropes. Instead, the musical shows them as real people with dreams and aspirations, and as much right to have their place in the world. Of course, Miranda shows up too (recall that he originated the role of Usnavi on Broadway) for a delightful cameo which I wish had a bigger place in the plot.
Music & Other Departments
As do the production numbers, almost all of which are larger-than-life explorations of the musical styles of such a specific cluster of communities. The opening number itself reels you in to the pulsating pacing of the whole show, but even from there onwards, every sequence features flowy movements and sultry sounds that are most certain to make you dance. As expected, the film is mostly sung-through with rap, salsa, merengue, and Latin pop, just a few styles of music and dance amongst a melange of what represents this area.
‘In The Heights’ is perhaps a bit too subliminally, really about the sacrifices that were made by first and second-generation immigrants to ensure that their children would be able to be part of the great American dream. All of them hoped for a better future for themselves and their families. It is an irony that prejudicial circumstances don’t always allow for that to be an easy ride for the inhabitants of Washington Heights, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be given an opportunity to try. The biggest achievement of Miranda’s writing, perhaps even greater than that in Hamilton, is that this story takes the quintessential American musical and puts it into such a uniquely local and niche flavour, but unlike its predecessors this one doesn’t feel gimmicky or mocking, but very rooted and authentic.
The format of a musical itself makes this one feel a bit stretched out in the middle, but Chu’s smart usage of visual effects and other movement techniques take our focus away from that.
Did I enjoy it?
I want to be as resilient and hopeful as the people of the block, dancing to the ‘Carnaval del Barrio,’ and turning their sorrows into great triumphs. So yes, enjoyment would be an understatement.
Do I recommend it?
Hell yeah! You get to be part of a happy movie for a few hours. Who doesn’t want that?