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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

In the Heights

Lin-Manuel Miranda's vibrant love letter to Washington Heights hits the big screen, with intoxicating, invigorating and exuberant results.
By Sarah Ward
June 24, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
June 24, 2021
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Lin-Manuel Miranda isn't the first lyricist to pen tunes so catchy that they get stuck in your head for years (yes, years), but his rhythmic tracks and thoughtful lines always stand out. Miranda's songs are melodic and snappy, as anyone who has seen Hamilton onstage or via streaming definitely knows. The multi-talented songwriter's lyrics also pinball around your brain because they resonate with such feeling — and because they're usually about something substantial. The musical that made his name before his date with US history, In the Heights echoes with affection for its eponymous Latinx New York neighbourhood. Now that it's reverberating through cinemas, its sentiments about community, culture, facing change and fighting prejudice all seem stronger, too. To watch the film's characters sing about their daily lives and deepest dreams in Washington Heights is to understand what it's like to feel as if you truly belong in your patch of the city, to navigate your everyday routine with high hopes shining in your heart, and to weather every blow that tries to take that turf and those wishes away. That's what great show tunes do, whisking the audience off on both a narrative and an emotional journey. Miranda sets his words to hip hop beats, but make no mistake: he writes barnstorming songs that are just as rousing and moving, and that've earned their place among the very best stage and screen ditties as a result.

Watching In the Heights, it's hard not to think about all those stirring tracks that've graced previous musicals. That isn't a sign of derivation here, though. Directing with dazzling flair and a joyous mood, Crazy Rich Asians filmmaker Jon M Chu nods to cinema's lengthy love affair with musicals in all the right ways. His song-and-dance numbers are clearly influenced by fellow filmic fare, and yet they recall their predecessors only because they slide in so seamlessly alongside them. Take his staging of '96000', for instance. It's about winning the lottery, after word filters around that bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, a Hamilton alum) has sold a lucky ticket. Due to the sweltering summer heat, the whole neighbourhood is at the public pool, which is where Chu captures a colourful sea of performers expressing their feelings through exuberantly shot, staged and choreographed music and movement — and it's as touching and glorious as anything that's ever graced celluloid.

$96,000 won't set anyone up for life, but it'd make an enormous difference to Usnavi, In the Heights' protagonist and narrator. It'd also help absolutely everyone he loves. As he explains long before anyone even hears about the winning ticket, or buys it, every Heights local has their own sueñitos — little dreams they're chasing, such as his determination to relocate to the Dominican Republic. That's where his late father hailed from, and where he's set his sights on finding happiness. As Usnavi tells the movie's tale, he does so looking back while talking to kids on a beach, so his commitment to pursuing his chosen future can't be doubted. But this isn't just the story of how and if his sueñito eventuates. It's also about his fondness for hairdresser Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, Vida), who he can't muster up the courage to ask out. It's about her quest to pursue a fashion career in Manhattan, too, and about the yearnings stirring inside fellow locals Nina (film debutant Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins, BlacKkKlansman). The former is back from Stanford to tell her dad (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector) she doesn't want to return — and the latter, who works for her father, dreams of business school.

Usnavi's young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, Vampires vs The Bronx) also pines for a different path, as does salon owner and local mainstay Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Katy Keen). Some of In the Heights' sueñitos are big and bold, while others value beauty in the everyday — such as the resolve to seek dignity in minutiae that drives neighbourhood Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from the stage). One of the things that's so entrancing about the film's narrative, which Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes adapts from her own stage efforts with Miranda, is the textured snapshot it builds by flitting between different Heights residents. Not just through its lively and heartfelt songs, but also via its energetic and loving lensing, it scratches away at their hopes and desires, chronicling how they're toiling, trying and persisting day in, day out. Miranda and Hudes don't shy away from the struggles faced by Usnavi and his friends, of course, or from the ups and downs in life that come for us all. But character by character, they build a vision of heart and hope in one very specific place, as aided by Chu putting his past experience directing Step Up: 2 the Streets and Step Up 3D to exceptional use.

In the Heights isn't just about dreams — it's also dreamy. Some of its musical numbers literally climb the walls with jubilation, or evocatively peer back in time, and it's just like stepping into Usnavi, Claudia and company's fantasies, emotions and memories with them. The grounding factor, other than the passion in every word, and the issues such as gentrification, economic inequality, racism and oppressive immigration policy that get pushed to the fore: Chu's phenomenal cast. Taking over the role that Miranda earned a Tony nomination for, Ramos is a dream, fittingly. His performance is so warm and engaging that hanging on his every rapped syllable is just part of the experience. He's surrounded by just-as-impressive co-stars, spanning the spectrum from Grace's simmering resolve and Barrera's pluck to Stephanie Beatriz's (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) scene-stealing supporting turn as a salon co-owner— and a singing and dancing Smits, too, as well as Miranda as a piragua cart vendor. The cinematic reverie they're all in isn't quite perfect, as its pacing often signals, but neither is any genuine dream. The best fantasies are always intoxicating, invigorating, impassioned and infectious, however, and truly mean something. In the Heights ticks all those boxes, and also finds time for a delightful Hamilton reference.

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