With soaring tunes and an energetic cast, In the Heights, based upon the musical by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a very upbeat film. With melodies bouncing between salsa, rap and Broadway show tunes, it has the same musical ear as Hamilton, although not as gleefully genre bending. In the Heights has a few creaky musical clichés and is probably two musical numbers too long as the film reaches its emotionally dramatic climax about a half hour before the actual ending. Overall, it’s done with exuberance, fun and visual flourishes that make it a joy to watch.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is living in Washington Heights in New York running a bodega while looking after his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) but Usnavi yearns to return to his childhood nation of the Dominican Republic. He is romantically interested in the wannabe clothing designer, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), while his buddy Benny (Corey Hawkins) is wooing Nina (Leslie Grace). Nina has returned from a year at college and is concerned about her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), selling his company so she can continue at school. Usnavi looks after “Abuela” (Olga Merediz), who has become the surrogate grandma to Usnavi and everyone in the heights. The entire block is all worked up when a winning lottery ticket worth 90,000 dollars is sold at Usnavi’s bodega. But things get intense when a massive blackout in the middle of the summer shuts down the heights.
In the Heights has a few musical tropes that it falls back on. The whole thing is wrapped around two romantic plotlines which has been the basis for most musicals. The standard musical plotline of “person from a small town who wants to make it big” is blatantly at play here with Vanessa being a struggling fashion artist. She even finds inspiration from the paint ridden rags of someone spray tagging the neighbourhood. Usnavi actually has a reverse musical dream, instead of moving onto a large flashy life he wants something really simple and away. Sonny the quipping sidekick protégée also is a bit of a standard character but Diaz makes him fairly fun.
The songs are uniformly solid, opening with the introductory title track that really swings, although it is a musical cliché where everyone in the first song sings about their town. Another awesome song is when the citizens of the heights sing about what they will do if they won 90,000 dollars ending in a big, literally splashy pool musical number. One great bit is when “Abuela” sings about her life and it’s downright stirring, especially the dramatic ending. This happens about halfway through the movie and it’s the apex of the film as Merediz absolutely nails the emotional depths of what she has undergone. Even a small, working class life can still seem epic and important. Then the movie sort of continues onward with some good moments but nothing tops Abeula’s tune.
Miranda himself, who starred in the original Broadway version, pops up as a Piragua salesman who has a frozen treat selling vendetta with a Mister Softee ice cream man and it’s a fun little random part. Especially great is when the Piragua guy pops up in the post-credit scene, celebrating the results of his war with Mister Softee by raising prices a dollar. The way the music bounces from hip-hop to ballads and back works really well with some witty, lyrical turns of phrase throughout. The guys are singing during the black out to get the power back up and it ends with them shooting fireworks and telling people to “back up” from the explosions which is very clever. One scene where the main characters are in a club has some funny moments like how Usnavi is running his mouth to impress a girl who can’t speak English.
Nina returning from her year at school is dejected after being looked down upon by others, while her father is telling her to do better than everyone else. Smits plays a stern and overbearing father well but not too much of a villain as he just wants his daughter to succeed. The romance between Nina and Benny is standard but they do share a nice visual moment where they dance up building walls. Ramos as Usnavi narrates the film with earnestness and the eventual twist where he was telling the story at the end is moving. Barrera works well although Vanessa has a rote gossip beauty salon scene number that feels like a mandatory contrivance. Stephanie Beatriz from Brooklynn Nine-Nine plays one of the beauty salon folks and she is good for amusing reactions. Director Jon M. Chu stages the numbers lavishly with colourful crowds of dancers and singers popping off the screen. This is one place where, visually speaking, the film is more dynamic than Hamilton as that was just a recorded stage play.
In the Heights may lean a bit on the clichés of the musical genre but it’s executed with flair. The songs all pop and the performers make it incredibly chipper. This has a lot of joy with dynamic imagery that’ll make a regular, overpopulated, overheated block in New York seem like a heartwarming, magical experience.
In The Heights
Director: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace