In the Heights: Film Review

In the Heights

I love movie musicals and I loved the stage production of In the Heights very much so I went into this film adaptation with the highest of hopes and I’m sad to report that I wasn’t as dazzled by it as everybody else.

Based on the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, In the Heights tells the story of a close-knit community of predominantly Latinx people in the Washington Heights district of New York City. The film is centred around Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner who dreams of returning home to the Dominican Republic and opening a bar on the beach, like his father, while we also follow his love interest Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of being a fashion designer, Nina (Leslie Grace), who returns home after dropping out of Stanford University, and Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works at the dispatch office for a car service and hopes to get back together with Nina.

There are a lot of reasons to praise In the Heights. Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu has delivered an ambitious, vibrant and entertaining musical celebration of life, heritage and community, filmed within the hustle and bustle of the neighbourhood itself. It is extremely loyal to the stage production – which is to be expected given that Hudes adapted the screenplay and Miranda is a producer and actor (he’s the Piragua guy) – it is full of life, has some laugh out loud moments, is a huge step forward for Latinx representation on film, and focuses on the immigrant experience and the struggles Latinx people face in America trying to achieve their dreams.

I’m a sucker for a musical and normally seeing all-singing and all-dancing sequences make me want to burst with sheer joy. Admittedly, this is a high expectation to have but I didn’t experience that feeling watching them in this. This should be very much my s**t, so why wasn’t I as blown away as everybody else seems to be? I can think of a couple of reasons – the choreography didn’t pop or jump off the screen like it should, a lot of the songs aren’t catchy earworms and some just singing numbers felt a bit dull.

Getting more specific, my standout musical number was 96,000, which is set at a pool. The song is excellent, it looked amazing and there were some great pockets of choreography but they were too short, I wanted a longer focus on choreography here, especially synchronised swimming, but Chu kept cutting away from the group shots to individual ones. I also enjoyed a sequence at Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega)’s salon, it was a lot of fun and there were some genius creative flourishes. Every shot of everybody dancing in the street would have been more epic if the shots were held for longer. Everyone dancing in unison is the best!

Elsewhere on the criticism, some of the Spanish is subtitled and some isn’t, which I thought was strange, I wasn’t too keen on the surreal elements – the giant rolls of fabric falling from the sky seemed cool because it worked with Vanessa’s song but I didn’t enjoy the dancing on the walls sequence, perhaps because the execution was off. I also thought the film itself was too long, there was a section near the end where the momentum dipped, but Chu brought it back for an amazing heartwarming finale – and make sure you stay for the post-credits scene.

I’m really glad Chu and Miranda defied studio pressure and opted against casting a big A-list star in this. It works so much better with a cast of relative unknowns. Ramos – who starred in Miranda’s Hamilton – is warm and charming as Usnavi and his rapping is excellent. Barrera and Grace have gorgeous singing voices, look stunning and bring such emotion to their characters and I hope this launches big acting careers for them. My other favourites were Gregory Diaz IV as Usnavi’s comical cousin Sonny; Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dasha Polanco as the sassy larger-than-life hair stylists at the salon; and Olga Merediz as the caring Abuela Claudia (the role she originated in the Broadway show). On the flipside, Marc Anthony has essentially a cameo as Sonny’s dad and I didn’t buy him as this washed-up alcoholic at all.

This sounds as if I disliked In the Heights but I’m just being super critical as musicals are my thing. I am in the minority having negative thoughts about this movie – the vast majority love it and think it’s spectacular, and you may well too. That wasn’t my experience – it didn’t make me feel much at all. Regardless of that, I’m glad they delayed this musical because it very much deserves to be seen on the big screen.

In cinemas Friday 18th June

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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