Dir: Jon M Chu. Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits. 143 mins
Sometimes a film will come along that feels perfectly of the moment – and not because of any superficial ties to current events. The themes that pulsate through In the Heights – culture, identity, community, gentrification, and the rights of undocumented immigrants – are as central to the conversation now as they were when Lin-Manuel Miranda first debuted his stage musical in 2005. But Jon M Chu’s full-throated, dizzyingly soulful adaptation arrives in cinemas after a year-long delay, into a world still trying to crawl out from under the shadows of a devastating pandemic. In that sense, it’s a gift.
Miranda’s musical is set in New York’s Washington Heights, a largely Dominican neighbourhood. As its protagonist, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), tells us, this is “the story of a block disappearing” – the rent keeps rising and white, affluent business owners are happy to move in and set up shop, charging prices that are far too high to be of any benefit to the community. People seem to be fleeing in droves. Usnavi dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, where he was born, and restoring his father’s old bar. Nina (Leslie Grace) is the first in her family to go to college, meaning that her father (Jimmy Smits’s Kevin) can’t help but place all his future hopes on her. Vanessa’s (Melissa Barrera) nascent design career promises to carry her all the way downtown, while Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) has been forced to relocate her salon to the Bronx.
The preciousness of community, specifically of immigrant communities, has come into sharp focus over the past few months – the vital role that they serve, and how hard it is when they become fractured. In the Heights is, in body and soul, a celebration of community. Miranda sees joy and pride as profound acts of resistance. These ideas are present, too, in Hamilton, the musical that made him a cultural force to reckon with. And he knows it – both he and Christopher Jackson, who originated the role of George Washington, cameo as feuding street sellers. There’s even a brief, cleverly hidden musical cue from the show.
Hope is woven into the very texture of Miranda’s work. His trademark hip-hop/Broadway hybrid always feels proclamatory, with one foot firmly rooted in the present and one in the past. In the Heights is grounded in the sights, sounds, and sensations of Washington Heights – the thud of a power sprayer hitting the pavement or the clack of acrylic nails all become part of the film’s percussion, a literal invocation of Usnavi’s assertion that “the streets were made of music”.
Chu and Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for the original musical and the film’s screenplay, share heartily in Miranda’s vision. So does the film’s cast, who each bring a sense of vitality and warmth to their characters. Smits brings a fatherly graciousness; Olga Merediz brings simple, unfussy beauty to the role of Claudia, the “Abuela” who’s cared for her neighbourhood for years. Corey Hawkins plays Benny, who pines for Nina, with twinkly-eyed romanticism, as he croons along to “When You’re Home” and “When the Sun Goes Down“. Ramos, meanwhile, delivers a performance worthy of someone whose star is rapidly on the rise – the camera remains in awe him, entranced by his freckled features, as he lights up with small joys, fears, and desires.
But Chu is conscious, too, of how tethered In the Heights is to tradition. His film understands the visual grammar of the movie musical, as it subtly tips his hat to Esther Williams and her legacy of aquamusicals (in the swimming pool-set “96,000”), to the balletic West Side Story, and the great New York affair at the heart of On the town. It also holds a loving respect for the cultural history of Washington Heights itself. During “Carnaval del Barrio”, a tapestry of flags – the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Puerto Rico – flies high above the action.
By that point in the story, the community has been hit by a blackout. It might feel on the nose to have these people sing about being “powerless”, but the imagery works beautifully for a film that feels this upfront in its beliefs. In the Heights is a musical triumph, unafraid to lift its voice up to the sky.