In the Heights – Film Review
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Lin- Manuel Miranda
In Irish cinemas 18th June 2021
This was actually the first film I saw in a cinema after they reopened so I was somewhat worried that I may just give it a joyous review simply out of the sheer delight of being able to watch something on the big screen. However, I can assure you that anything I write is totally justified and not in the least coloured by my excitement of finally getting to sit in a room with strangers watching a film after several long months.
This has been very eagerly awaited as it is an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Yes, the same Lin-Manuel Miranda who gave the world the musical sensation Hamilton. In the Heights predates that historical musical hit and first opened on Broadway in 2008.
Set in Washington Heights, hence the title, it follows Usnavi (Ramos), an immigrant from the Dominican Republic living in the Heights, as he prepares to return to his homeland. However, an imminent blackout, a heatwave and the issues of those around him, including his love interest Melissa (Barrera) and young cousin Sonny (Diaz IV), conspire to scupper his plans.
If you are familiar with the original musical you will notice several changes here. They have cut some characters and songs and changed some references to make them more contemporary and relevant to a 2021 audience. However, this doesn’t detract from the central story and shouldn’t distract anyone who has seen the stage production.
The mainly unknown (and up and coming) cast do a great job giving energetic performances that seep off the screen. Their youthful energy is balanced well by more established actors such as Jimmy Smits, who brings stoicism to the story and helps keep it grounded. Also, watch out (well listen out) for a Hamilton Easter Egg during one of his scenes.
Visually, this is extremely colourful but yet manages to have a gritty edge. It was actually shot in the real Washington Heights and benefits hugely from using real-life locations instead of a sound stage. It oozes urban chic. The choreography is fabulous and there is more than a nod to the legendary Buzby Berkely.
Director Chu clearly has a love for these characters and struggles, and despite the whimsy a musical implies, he manages to convey the more serious elements of the plot brilliantly. There are several very serious subplots running throughout this but they never become turgid or imposing and they get treated with the proper gravitas. This is a joyous movie-going experience that fills the viewer with hope and optimism after what has been a miserable fifteen months.