“In the Heights” is about igniting a flame from a dying ember. It’s about evolving culture and generations coming together to survive. It’s about love, pride, and so much more. But most of all, it’s about music, stunning and evocative music from the minds of the maestros themselves, Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. Directed just as poignantly and surprisingly by Jon M. Chu, In The Heights is the feel-good movie of the year and a must-watch for anyone with blood boiling to fight for something. And above all else, it’s for Latin Americans, who are powerfully celebrated here.
In Washington Heights, we meet awkwardly charming bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who wakes up every morning and looks to some photographs pinned beside his bed and says, “Best days of my life”. Those photos show him and his father when Usnavi was a young boy growing up in the Dominican Republic. Now all he wants is to go back there and revive his father’s old bar, and he saves his pennies every day to make that happen.
Surrounding him are a myriad of unique and fully realised characters, all with dreams just like him. There’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who wants to move further into the city and become a fashion designer. There’s Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) and his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), the former wants to put his daughter through college, and the latter seeks to find where she belongs. Then there’s Piragüero (Miranda), who sells shaved ice to the kids on the block, and he just wants to be able to keep on doing exactly that. And believe me when I say there are so many more, with all of them united in the desire to save their block from being forgotten.
Together the massive ensemble explodes to life in every song. With each beat there is an emotion, a sensation that brings a vividness to their world. This is a fictional story about a seemingly natural occurrence in New York, the constant changing of cultures in its neighbourhoods. It’s seen in the likes of John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”. But here, culture and music combine to make In the Heights distinct. With its token hip-hop style, gorgeous set pieces and undeniable Latinx flare, Chu makes the statement that yes, this has been explored before, but this is how it happened here.
The resounding power of that statement comes from the brilliance of the cast. Anthony Ramos is a born superstar who I fully expect to become one of those inescapable faces after his work here as Usnavi. He is at once sentimental and tragic before the next moment being an inspirational cultural leader. His duality often is perfectly brought to life by Ramos, and it will endure as a classic musical performance. Barrera too, is a star in the making, the way she embodies Vanessa is such that you can’t envision anyone else in the role. Usnavi’s cousin Sonny is another standout. The young Gregory Diaz IV captures him with all the necessary swagger and plenty of charisma. There are so many more I could name but were I to, I might never stop writing. So just know that everyone involved sings and dances their hearts out onto the screen, and all of them deserves all the praise they are receiving. Especially Jimmy Smits. It was nice seeing him performing in a blockbuster once again.
Narratively In the Heights sometimes feels strained. The story itself is perhaps a little stretched across a slightly overlong 153-minute runtime. But as spectacle, the film is faultless. Songs pause the main storylines a couple of times, but they are so perfectly composed that it doesn’t matter. Here is where the remarkable efforts of Chu come in. After the massive success of “Crazy Rich Asians”, he was forgiven by many for his prior high-profile misfires. But in the back of my mind, the sheer overindulgences of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Now You See Me 2” continued to play, and I was concerned when he was announced to helm the project. However, here he takes his love of extravagance and makes it something all audiences can love. Simply put, the set pieces are utterly brilliant and can only be produced from someone well at home in the director’s chair.
In the Heights is a love letter to a culture stuck in limbo, and it’s full of so much heart that anyone who watches it will come out feeling that love, which to me means it’s a great film.
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