I have to borrow a quote from my brother. He goes: “Kel, summer doesn’t truly start until Eurovision airs.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking – what the hell does Eurovision, a night of European pop entertainment, have to do with the Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ In the Heights, the 2008 Broadway play making the transition to the big screen. What my brother was alluding to is the energy, that serotonin kick that puts you in a perpetual good mood. Your troubles are non-existent, your emotions travel across the highest and lowest of the spectrum and for a couple of hours, you bask in the freedom of entertainment. It’s the type of statement that can be applied to Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights, because it is a film that kickstarts the summer in the right way.
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There’s a lot to encompass within the screenplay, a playful myriad of stories about love, gentrification, education, politics, racism, culture, immigration, and a lottery ticket. Its thematic subjects interwoven throughout its neighbouring characters. But ultimately, it’s a story about belonging and the ideas of what makes a home.
That is the conflict and question posed to Usnavi (Hamilton star Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner who dreams of leaving Washington Heights, New York, to return to the Dominican Republic and emulate his father. The best years of his life, he keeps telling himself. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) dreams of becoming a fashion designer, aiming to move out of the block to an upmarket apartment. Nina (Leslie Grace) questions her future after a tormented first year at Stanford with her father Kenny (Jimmy Smits) using the family savings to fund her education. And Benny (Corey Hawkins) envisages climbing up the managerial ladder. But with the sweltering summer heat, their ‘el suenito’, their ‘little dream’, challenges their desires and their heart.
Inevitably, In the Heights will draw comparisons with Lin-Manuel’s other successful play Hamilton and despite the delay due to the pandemic, there’s still an element of ‘good timing’. Both have an addictive soundtrack with a guaranteed replay factor. Both bring a successful Broadway play into the mainstream consciousness. But Hamilton’s continued success means that Chu’s film can capitalise on the in-jokes and cameos. But if there is a synergy between the two, then it’s how history runs through its veins, re-imagining the architects of its story. Hamilton’s case is obvious – the story of America and the birth of a new nation as seen through the eyes of a diverse cast. In the Heights is the America of today, the continuance of that legacy and the little details that make up the fabrics of the Latinx community. And yes, evoking that same spirit, immigrants are still getting the job done.
But naturally, there’s always trepidation when it comes to cinema adaptations based on stage plays. There will always be significant trade-offs with scale, intimacy, and that on-stage magic. It’s a tough predicament Jon M. Chu finds himself in, but for a director who left his mark on films such as Step Up 2 and 3, he gets it. In the Heights is a wonderful daze of spectacle and imagination – a throwback to musicals of yesteryear where large-scale dance numbers, bold colours and extravagant choreography was the norm, evoking memories of West Side Story, Annie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and other notable influences.
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Chu takes advantage of that cinematic canvas and paints the most vivid and innovative picture, fuelled by romanticism and escapism. In one scene, Ramos’ Usnavi plays the sewer cover as if he was scratching a record. In another, it’s a combined mix of playful animation in the song ‘96,000’. It’s also the tribute of respect paid to Fred Astaire’s 1951 film Royal Wedding where Benny and Nina defy gravity as they dance around their apartment block. And true to Lin-Manuel’s rapping game and style, the homages are given a modern remix, so much that Washington Heights is a DJ to its own soundtrack. To bask in that culture for two hours and twenty-three minutes, it’s a treasured experience.
And that is largely due to its impressive cast list, with Anthony Ramos as the lead. As Usnavi, he brings so much charm and enthusiasm to the role. And it is effortless, especially when bouncing off that energy between Benny, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Nina and Vanessa, who inject their own personal swagger and confidence into the mix.
Some would argue that its long runtime, the predictability and looseness of its story, the number of characters on screen and the simplistic depth of its characters hold it back. It’s a tricky one. Admittedly, it’s not a heavy-handed exploration of its topics. Occasionally it flirts that fine line between cheese and overindulgence (like all good musicals do), even when a character is singing about their woes. And theatre plays are typically long length (including a built-in intermission). But the sheer entertainment it possesses overrides most of its criticisms.
And that emotive sensation boils down to how acutely aware it is of what type of film it wants to deliver, the cultural beauty it brings to the screen, and what we take from it as the audience. On the surface, it’s a feel-good homage to cinema – a reminder of the magic of the big screen. Beneath, it’s a celebration of community, a communal love letter to those who make up its foundation. It finds sentimentality and remembrance in that approach. It’s the film’s quieter moments where it manages to cut through the upbeat momentum, resonating the most with the performance of Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia. It’s the experiences we see every day with the encroachment of new developments, higher rents, and that new hipster ‘go-to’ place which ushers in the new and forces out the old. And in that transition, a voice – the people who live and breathe it – is silenced. In the Heights – with all its energy and clout – basically says we refuse to step into the darkness.
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For Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights serves as another reminder of his musical talent and his increased repertoire. And alongside Quiara Alegría Hudes, they fill the screen with the sought after exuberance and craft that leaves a smile on your face. After this, there will probably be renewed calls to turn Hamilton into a similar escapade (despite the recorded stage film on Disney+). Personally, I hope he resists the temptation. Not because it can’t make the transition, but In the Heights uses its dynamism of Washington Heights. It’s a character within itself which Chu’s direction takes advantage of. And with that deliberate and relatable consciousness, it’s enough of a platform to scale up its adventure. Hamilton’s intimate staging would be sorely missed if it took that path.
A lot has been said about the pandemic, but if there is a film that feels like a tonic, something that is both an emotional and cathartic pick me up, then look no further. Welcome back to the cinema.
In the Heights is released in UK cinemas on 18th June.