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Film Review: In the Heights

Hamiliton creator Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical sensation celebrates Latino life in New York.

Before the Hamilton phenomenon took the world by storm, Lin Manuel Miranda conceived and composed another hit musical in 2005. Inspired by Miranda’s desire to see his own experiences as a Latino reflected on the Broadway stage, In The Heights is an ensemble story about a working-class immigrant community. A critical and commercial success, the show was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical.

In The Heights has now hit the big screen, and it is well worth the wait. Featuring a stellar cast, a grounded and emotional narrative, and Miranda’s signature soulful tunes, this is a film that celebrates what it means to have a place we belong and to fight for the life we want.

Set in the district of Washington Heights in New York, In the Heights will mean more to those with a personal connection to the location, but the story it tells feels universal.

Featured at the centre is Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who runs a small corner store in the neighbourhood. His parents dead, he’s been raised by Abulela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the matriarch of the community who cares for many of the young and the lost, including Usnavi’s young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV).

Usnavi’s circle also includes Nina (Leslie Grace) who has just returned from college for the summer, Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works for Nina’s father at his car service, and nail technician Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) for whom Usnavi harbours a crush. Usnavi dreams of returning to DR to restore his father’s old bar, while the others are similarly trying to find where they fit. The dynamics between each of the characters, and what each of them wants from life, is explored over the course of several summer days when the block is hit by a blackout.

With a screenplay by the original show’s writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) has the difficult job of translating a work once intended for the stage for the big screen. Chu manages this by embracing everything that makes the musical theatre world work, while still allowing the nuance of the human stories at the centre of the film to shine. The camera pans wide to reveal the scope and scale of the dance numbers, and then focuses in on the little details that make the characters feel real. He gives the actors space to connect with the audience. Even in the flashiest of sequences, the film never loses sight of the humanity behind it all.

The characters truly are the heart of In the Heights, and here is where both the performances and musical numbers shine. Miranda’s score may have less at stake than the Revolutionary War or the development of the American Constitution, but it mines the rhythms of the city, Latin beats, and urban sounds to build a strong and soulful connection to the lives being portrayed on the screen. Eschewing hiring major Hollywood names for majority of the roles, the cast of mostly Latinx singers and actors bring an extraordinary authenticity to every performance. You truly care about each and every one of them.

Among them all, Anthony Ramos as Usnavi still manages to set himself apart. His portrayal bounces effortlessly between playful humour, lonely desperation, and unbridled joy. A true triple threat, Ramos captures your heart from the moment you meet him, and you want nothing but the best for Usnavi throughout. This goes for all the characters though, and the sensitivity and compassion with which they are written and performed. There is no villain here. The conflict comes from circumstance and expectation, with this hard working and passionate community looking out for each other every step of the way. 

With a runtime of almost two and a half hours, it is an intense experience. Miranda’s fast paced lyrics may be hard to follow at times for some, and combined with the compelling, emotional character arcs it makes for a somewhat exhausting watch—in the best possible way. Fans of the original show should also be prepared for some changes and cuts to songs and even plot points and relationships. All of the changes are for the better, adding more depth, poignancy or relevance to the plot (though I did miss the song Sunrise). There is so much more that could be said about this film. Every actor could be singled out. There are incredible musical numbers that explode with life and feeling. The production design captures the sense of place while making it seem magical. Ultimately, this is an extraordinary film. Perhaps it seems all the more resonant at a time when we’ve been reminded of the power of human connection, but In the Heights is a true celebration of how important it is to connect with those around us and do the best we can with what we have. It is hopeful, proud, and full of joy, even when things are hard. It’s exactly what we need right now

Reviewed by Sarah Westgarth

In the Heights opens on June 24th

extraordinary 5 stars

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