This dazzling adaptation of In The Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton Broadway musical, begins with a jolt of social commentary. “And ever since the rents went up,” raps bodega owner Usnavi (Hamilton‘s Anthony Ramos), “it’s gotten mad expensive but we live with just enough.” Urban gentrification isn’t the only issue tackled by Miranda’s genre-blending songs and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ sleek screenplay. A few tunes later, on the hip-hop-influenced banger ‘96,000’, Usnavi’s teenage nephew Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) opines that “racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant”. In the Heights is definitely rooted in real life, but as befits a big, buoyant musical movie, the end result is uplifting rather than gritty.
Set in Washington Heights, a Manhattan neighbourhood with a large Latin American community, it’s an ensemble piece built around the ambitious Usnavi. While saving to buy back his dad’s old beach bar in the Dominican Republic, Usnavi is trying to woo Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a local nail technician who dreams of becoming a dress designer. Usnavi’s friends and neighbours include Nina (Leslie Grace), a high achiever on vacation from an Ivy League college, and Benny (Straight Outta Compton‘s Corey Hawkins), a principled cab dispatcher who works for Nina’s father Kevin (TV legend Jimmy Smits). Their intertwining stories unfold in straightforward dialogue and Miranda’s vibrant songs, which cleverly blend elements of Latin American genres like salsa and merengue with soaring Broadway choruses and the odd hip-hop beat. ‘Breathe’, a standout ballad about struggling to live up to other people’s expectations, really gives Grace a chance to show off her vocal range.
Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) captures the intimacy of this close-knit community without skimping on big-screen spectacle. His sweeping overhead shots of Manhattan heighten the excitement of epic song-and-dance numbers that are already teeming with energy. A splashy set piece filmed at the Highbridge Park Outdoor Pools in real-life Washington Heights is especially eye-popping. He’s helped by Christopher Scott’s expert choreography and a fantastic ensemble cast: everyone from dramatic salon owner Daniela (Broadway stalwart Daphne Rubin-Vega) to her chic employee Cuca (Orange Is The New Black‘s Dascha Polanco) really tear into their solo parts.
Despite its strong social conscience and compelling characters, In the Heights is a little light on dramatic tension, though it does pull off a minor plot twist at the finish. A mid-film blackout that plunges the neighbourhood into darkness was probably more effective on stage, where it neatly delineated the first and second acts. Still, this doesn’t spoil a film that blends melody, energy and spectacle into an enormously enjoyable package. You’ll leave with a smile on your face wanting to stream the soundtrack – a sure sign of a job well done.
- Director: John M. Chu
- Starring: Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera
- Release date: June 18 (in UK cinemas), June 11 (US)