In the Heights Review: A Dazzling Summer Spectacle

in the heights2

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Hamilton header Lin Manuel Miranda brings his original smash hit musical In the Heights to the big screen with this gorgeous blockbuster adaptation

Whilst Hamilton may have taken over the world with that once in a generation level of fame for a Broadway musical you may not realise that its creator, the multi-talented Lin Manuel Miranda, had helmed another smash hit long before it. The Broadway run of In the Heights won a clutch of Tony awards back in 2008 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, (which Miranda would eventually win for Hamilton) so with his star ever rising, it seemed only right it got a big studio adaptation to bring it to a new, global audience. Whilst Miranda produces, Crazy Rich Asians director John M. Chu heads the film.

In The Heights is set over three days in the North Manhattan neighbourhood of Washington Heights, a bustling area populated heavily by Latin American immigrants and the same neighbourhood that Miranda grew up in. Our narrator Usnavi (Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos) is a convenience store owner with a dream, and you’ll also spot Hamilton cameos from Miranda himself and Christopher Jackson who swaps his generals uniform for an ice cream van.

The supporting cast includes Brooklyn 99’s Stephanie Beatriz and Orange Is the New Black’s Dasha Polanco, whilst the principal ensemble is made up of both Broadway veterans and fresh-faced new talents hired off the back of a massive open casting call.

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera star in In The Heights
(ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

In The Heights is a story about dreamers, a charting of diverse immigrant stories made glitzy by magical realism. Each of our stars is at a crossroads in their life, on the precipice of making big changes that’ll drive them forwards. Usnavi dreams of closing up shop and opening a beach bar in the Dominican Republic. Vanessa wants to move downtown and open a fashion boutique. Benny is chasing a girl whilst Nina is questioning her place at college.

Meanwhile the neighbourhood is shrinking as rents are going up and business owners are being driven out, and some of our characters face an uncertain immigration status, their dreams being curtailed by the government before they can even get started.

Many of the stories reflect on themes of belonging and of family – these young people who were either brought to New York whilst very young or were born there as second-generation immigrants question if it really feels like home to them. There’s also the pressure of dealing with their parents expectations, many of whom faced great struggle to start new, better lives – how do our stars balance their own dreams against the dreams their parents had for them?

With a background discontent at the treatment of the Hispanic population of the USA right now, In the Heights is an old-fashioned musical whose references and influences are bang up to date with the modern world.

Dasha Polanco, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Stephanie Beatriz, In The Heights
Dasha Polanco, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Stephanie Beatriz are the salon girls of In The Heights

To put it simply, I adored this film. Having listened to OBC recording of the play a few dozen times I was already familiar with the songs – a trademark Miranda combination of rap with poppy R&B and big ballads thrown in – but what they have managed to do with it here is something really special. In The Heights positively leaps off the screen with its combination of colourful characters, earnest performances, and ambitious dance numbers.

Toe tapping beats, vibrant streets and sweetly told dreams; particular highlights include a dizzyingly complicated swimming pool dance scene and a rivetingly fun carnival. It’s a film guaranteed to put a huge smile on your face and leave it there for a long time after.

The one word I felt best described it is heart. This film and these characters have so much heart. Given that it’s a fluffy, idealised musical world I questioned how this came to be, and I think the answer lies in the production of it. In The Heights was filmed on location in the real streets of Washington Heights and all of it’s extras and background characters are real residents, recruited in a massive casting call that sought to bring real locals to the screen.

It’s those real faces and their untold stories that telegraph the films strong sense of community and of genuine civic pride, the whole thing feels like a big warm hug that just makes you want to live in a neighbourhood like this.

Noah Catala, Gregory Diaz, Corey Hawkins and Anthony Ramos, In The Heights
(L-R) Noah Catala, Gregory Diaz IV, Corey Hawkins and Anthony Ramos

Skilful direction from Chu keeps In The Heights dynamic in spite of its long run time and it’s transitions and pacing of score are used to great effect – the one moment of silence in the constant pulsing soundtrack being used to drop an emotional ton of bricks on you. Given his global success with Crazy Rich Asians and the power it and Black Panther had to amplify marginalised voices in mainstream cinema, I can only begin to imagine how powerful this film is going to feel for the communities it represents. (I happened to see it whilst surrounded by a gaggle of Latina women and I can tell you, their absolute joy watching it was infectious!)

In The Heights reminded me of everything that I love about live theatre. It’s a dazzling show, a spectacle. A thing that highlights both the extraordinary talents of its singers and dancers but also allows you to feel that real human connection that a truly skilled cast are able to convey. Most of all it is fun. Pure fun and joy with likeable characters, great choreography and an irresistible soundtrack. The best movie musical I’ve seen in years; what more could you want from a summer blockbuster?

In The Heights is released in the UK on 18th June 2021 and will also be available on HBO Max internationally

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