In the Heights
WHERE TO WATCH:
Now showing in cinemas
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
In Washington Heights, N.Y., the scent of warm coffee hangs in the air just outside of the 181st St. subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies a vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is a likable and magnetic bodega owner who hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
What makes a community? The buildings, the streets or the people that live in them? It's the relationships that neighbours have with each other and that support network that helps people get through tough times. This is what In the Heights represents, a Lin Manuel Miranda Broadway musical recreated for a worldwide audience. Joyful, hopeful and everything you expect from a first-class musical, the story and characters are also wrapped up in the immigrant experience of Hispanics and Latinx in America, how they perceive their identities and their memories of their homeland. In the Heights will become a firm fan-favourite for any Hamilton and Miranda fan.
Directed by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M Chu, it is set in the New York barrio of Washington Heights and focuses on bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who dreams of recreating his childhood in his home country. Over a week, he gets the opportunity to make his little dream come to life while we are introduced to other dreams in his community. His long-time crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) dreams of moving downtown and starting her fashion career; shining star Nina (Leslie Grace) struggles at university in the face of her dad's sacrifices to get her there, while Benny (Corey Hawkins) has big dreams of being a successful business owner. Then there's Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) - the matriarch and adoptive mother of the entire community. This is just a small sample of the multitude of characters that make up the vibrant cast, each with their own dreams, motivations and musical number.
But the story isn't about whether or not they achieve their dreams - it's about how those dreams are shaped, either by our circumstances, our heritage, or our family and our personal abilities. In the Heights doesn't fall into the trap of purporting a superficial message of "reach for your dreams" or "if you can dream it, you can do it". These kinds of messages tend to ignore people's lived realities and the privileges that come with certain facts of life. Instead, the musical has a refreshing take on the idea that our dreams aren't static - as we grow, our dreams can change, and what we once thought would be the one thing to finally make us happy could be the thing that makes us miserable. It doesn't mean we abandon our dreams - instead, they are remoulded, taking into account the dreams of others around us. It's not about achieving these dreams - it's about being willing to fight for them and let them change.
In the Heights is also breathtaking on a technical level, with a production that looks like Broadway on steroids. With superb direction from Chu, many from the original stage production were involved - Miranda as producer and one of the cast, the script was adapted by the original writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, and one of the original stage actors Olga Merediz reprised her Tony-winning role as Abuela Claudia. The lead Usnavi is also played by Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos, who makes a smooth transition between stage and screen. His voice was clear and in perfect pitch while throwing down on the dance floor and giving emotionally charged performances - a true triple threat.
His and the rest of the cast's roles were further bolstered by flawless choreography that worked in unison with the cinematography - something that can sometimes feel disconnected in movie musicals. In particular, there's one scene where Usnavi is singing out a window, but in the reflection, you can see a massive group dance happening in the background - a truly magical cinematic moment. Another was Nina and Benny dancing on the side of a building, something I would love to see the behind-the-scenes of. There are so many more brilliant scenes, but then this might turn into a never-ending review.
In the Heights is set to become an iconic movie musical and will thrill any theatre fan to the core. While you should be prepared for a long no-intermission haul that did feel a bit stretched at times, it's also a master class in dance cinematography and will thrill the more cinephile-minded audience. Overall, In the Heights is a beautiful, fun film that's perfect for the gloomy days of winter.