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Review: In the Heights

June 10, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household name by giving American history a hip-hop makeover in his Broadway sensation Hamilton. But, before creating a genuine cultural phenomenon with that historical musical, Miranda made his Broadway debut with In the Heights, a good-natured tribute to the mostly Latino denizens of New York’s Washington Heights neighbourhood.

Now In the Heights has gotten the big screen treatment in director Jon M. Chu’s exuberant new film adaptation of the same name, an enjoyable if slightly overhyped movie that serves as a throwback to the big Hollywood musicals of yesteryear. While the film is not without its flaws, it’s still a fun movie that has a lot to like about it, and the musical numbers are bright and vibrant.

While Chu is coming off a big hit with Crazy Rich Asians, which did for East Asian representation what this film does for Latino visibility, In the Heights actually allows him to draw upon his cinematic roots directing the second and third Step Up films. Those flashy dance movies gave him ample practise for making a full-on song and dance musical such as this one, and he draws upon this experience for the film’s large scale production numbers.

The rhythmic opening number introduces us to the large cast of characters populating this New York City barrio. Our narrator and main character is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, taking over Miranda’s role in the original Broadway production), who runs his family’s bodega in Washington Heights but dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to rebuild his father’s old bar. Like many in the community, Usnavi was partially raised by Abuela Claudia (played by Olga Merediz, reprising her Tony-nominated role from the stage), his older neighbour who serves as a matriarch for the whole block.

Usnavi works in the bodega with his teenaged cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and is harbouring a crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works at Daniela’s (Daphne Rubin-Vega) nail salon but dreams of moving downtown to become a fashion designer. There is a secondary romantic subplot involving Nina (Leslie Grace), who has just returned from Stanford, and her ex-boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works for her father Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) at a local car service. Nina represents the hopes and dreams of the community as the one who was able to make it out, but her ambitions differ from what her father wants for her.

The loose narrative counts down the days to a neighbourhood blackout. There are multiple story threads going on here, including the revelation that a winning lottery ticket has been sold at Usnavi’s store. This gives way to what is one of the film’s best and most high energy musical numbers, “$96,000,” which goes into an impressively choreographed water routine at a public pool, and finds the large supporting cast singing about what they would do if they had the winning ticket. It’s a splashy, colourful production number and one of the true high points of the film.

The film does feel somewhat padded at a whopping 143 minutes. It doesn’t have much in the way of plot, and the dialogue scenes are often not as engaging as the musical ones. Some of the supporting characters are sort of bland and could have been developed further, and despite the cultural specificity of the story, the “follow your dreams” narrative itself actually feels sort of generic and clichéd.

The adapted screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who also wrote the book for the stage play, changes certain plot points from the original musical to varying effect. This includes adding a new framing device that finds Usnavi telling the story to a group of kids on a beach, turning the musical itself into a sort of movie within a movie. I don’t know if this was really needed. It gives the film more of a family movie feel, but these scenes can come across as overly saccharine and sentimental. They also interrupt the film’s energy and flow at times, adding minutes to an already bloated running time.

The film feels like it is meant to replicate the feel of a block party, and it is largely successful at doing this. It has a celebratory feel to it, and while this alleviates some of the story’s inherent drama, it’s hard to argue against the good vibes that the film gives off. The main attraction of In the Heights are the musical numbers, and while every song isn’t equally memorable, the productions themselves are often jubilant. There are hints of Hamilton on the soundtrack here, which offers a mix of rap, hip-hop and Latin-influenced rhythms, and it’s interesting to hear how Miranda honed his clever wordplay and rhyming style between both projects.

Ramos gives an immensely likeable performance as Usnavi that shows his movie star potential. The actor brings an infectious positivity to the character, while also delivering some very heartfelt moments that play off his expressive face. While her role is brief, Merediz in many ways serves as the heart of the story, and she delivers the film’s most emotional musical number with a show-stopping sequence in the middle. The production design and art direction in this scene alone is pretty incredible, detailing her arrival in America from Cuba in an impressively stylized way.

While the film sometimes looks a little too polished and glossy, and some of the shots are a little cheesy including obvious lens flares, cinematographer Alice Brooks does a fine job of capturing the musical numbers. Her dynamic camerawork shows the expansive crowds of backup dancers, including with some swooping crane shots. The best of the film’s images is an impressively captured shot of dancers reflected in the bodega’s glass door over Ramos’ face. The editing by Myron Kerstein often cuts to the beat, and while it can be a bit much at times, it gives the film a very energetic flair.

I do think the film has been a bit overhyped, and the somewhat threadbare story doesn’t quite justify the lengthy running time. But In the Heights is still a good musical that offers enough of a celebratory, feel-good experience to recommend it, along with some eye-popping production numbers. I watched the film at home, and would love to see it again in a theatre, since I imagine that a massive screen and surround sound would only amplify the experience.

In the Heights is now available to rent at home on various Digital platforms, and is also playing in select theatres where they are open.

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