A film version of the Broadway musical in which Usnavi, a sympathetic New York bodega owner, saves every penny every day as he imagines and sings about a better life.
Cinemas are open again so what better timing for a brash and unashamedly cheesy summer musical to hit the screens, especially one based on the first piece of musical theatre from the man responsible for the biggest musical of recent years in ‘Hamilton’. That is ‘In The Heights’, adapted from Lin Manuel Miranda’s stage play, the story of a group of individuals living their lives in the predominantly hispanic New York neighbourhood of Washington Heights. Musicals are possibly the most marmite of movie genres and ‘In The Heights’ embraces everything about musicals that will have you either jumping for joy or running for the hills.
We follow a series of characters but our main viewpoint is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, reprising his role from the stage show), a shopkeeper who dreams of making enough money to move back home to the Dominican Republic. The rest of the characters share similar dreams, of escaping the neighbourhood, of falling in love, of moving back to the places where their families came from, and these shared dreams and experiences underpin the story that ‘In The Heights’ is trying to tell. I often struggle to get on the same wavelength as musicals initially and this was no exception with the first couple of numbers having me cringing more than cheering and the adjustment to a hip hop style was quite jarring at first, but it did start to grow on me as the movie progressed.
It is cheesy as hell as musicals often are and the story doesn’t throw in too many surprises, but as a celebration of this neighbourhood, of the immigrant experience and of young people striving for a better life, I think ‘In The Heights’ mostly hits its marks. Ramos makes for a likeable lead and the supporting cast all play their parts well, namely Corey Hawkins as his best friend Benny and Leslie Grace as Benny’s love interest Nina. As for the musical numbers I didn’t find them to be the most memorable (although I can’t get ‘Piragua’ out my head!), but the blackout sequence is quite powerful (if a bit overblown in terms of the lyrics) and the crowd singing sequences in ‘Carnaval del Barrio’ are superbly crafted. I also liked that for a musical based on a stage play it is fiercely cinematic and doesn’t restrict itself to its theatrical origins – director Jon M. Chu makes the most of the more expansive setting to ground us in Washington Heights.
I don’t see this being a musical that I’d return too but for a bit of cheesy summer escapism it fit the bill for me.
Directed By: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Ariana Greenblatt, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco