Jon M. Chu's screen adaptation of the acclaimed Lin-Manuel Miranda musical is a relentlessly joyous explosion of life and colour
Move over, Hamilton: Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights may have debuted seven years before the 2015 Broadway smash phenomenon, but there's no denying which one feels more in tune with a world still reeling from a global pandemic that seemed to threaten the very existence of cinema. When the weather's good, a darkened theatre might not seem like the most inviting proposition, yet this is a movie that makes being inside on a hot summer's day feel like you're caught up in the giddy euphoric buzz of an impromptu street carnival.
As directed by Step Up and Crazy Rich Asians filmmaker Jon M. Chu, this is an utterly vibrant, joyful movie musical extravaganza of the highest class. At once, it arrives with the air of a cultural reset in the wake of decades of uninspired movie musicals, while at the same time retaining a gloriously old-fashioned appeal, spinning out musical numbers in an intoxicating explosion of genres and styles. It's a colourful celebration of New York City, of the Latin American community, and of dreams both big and small, in whatever form they may take.
Anthony Ramos leads a ridiculously photogenic cast of singers and dancers as the affable Usnavi, a bodega owner in the neighbourhood of Washington Heights, known for its large Hispanic population. He's a second generation-immigrant who dreams of packing it all in and moving back to the Dominican Republic, which he left as a kid. Like in the stage show, Heights chaotically interweaves Usnavi's internal dilemma with stories of similar generational predicaments, not to mention two romantic threads; there's Nina (Leslie Grace), who has returned from Stanford with plans to drop out due to the pressure, Benny (Corey Hawkins) who harbours feelings for Nina while working for her dad, and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who's saving up to open a fashion store in the West Village and whom Usnavi unsubtly hankers for.
Miranda is a believer in this kind of big-hearted, accessible pop cultural product as a force of good; his worldview is one of untold optimism. In the Heights is therefore cheesy, but in the best and most infectious kind of way, the film eschewing anything distinctly negative or gritty in favour of a more “we're all in this together” community spirit: a neighbourhood vibe where everyone roots for everyone else, where even the smallest player has a place in the story. Chu makes a point of intercutting shots of regular folk into the sequences – hairdressers, chefs, people moving to and from work – in order to reaffirm the idea of one struggle being the struggle of many.
There's always been a tendency with musical adaptations to simply place the camera and shoot as though filming the stage version verbatim – a kind of cop-out usually stemming from fear of accidentally doing away with what made the musical great in the first place. But more often than not this approach leads to lifeless adaptations that feel stilted and boxed in (see no further than Tom Hooper's recent forays into the genre, like his uninspired direction on Les Miserables, or the general calamity of his disastrous Cats).
Chu understands this is a motion picture, though, and so he utilises every tool in his filmmaking arsenal to ensure Heights never feels like a “filmed stage show.” Witty, fast-paced editing blends seamlessly with impressive and awe-inspiring wide shots that position Washington Heights as a living, breathing mini city of its own – and with its own set of rules. Here, the environment moves in time with the music – the closing of a gate, the spraying of a hose, the way a dishcloth moves along a surface as the orchestral horn section blares out – to further the vision of a place where all the pieces are moving in harmony, a neighbourhood of perpetual motion and life. Every shot feels lovingly crafted and considered: you can feel the thought and justification in every frame. And while it's shiny, it's appropriately rough around the edges: dancers move in time, yet they're doing their own thing, too, expressing themselves according to their own preference and style.
The numbers themselves are dizzyingly inventive and intoxicating, drawing influence from the great MGM musicals, Bollywood, and everything in between. As the film moves seamlessly from one beautifully designed sequence to the next, the energy stays easy, Chu and his talented team – kudos to choreographer Christopher Scott – riffing on a smorgasbord of styles and sounds, from Jaques Demy to Bob Fosse, from salsa to soul. There are beautiful ballads, moving two-handers (one of which takes place on the vertical side of an apartment block), and explosive ensemble showdowns; all the time the entire cast triumph in their execution of the material, making it all feel like something effortlessly improvised on the spot.
Of course, this is a Miranda musical, and so the songs themselves are lyrically dense, witty, and self-referential, looping round, exploding with jokes, in-jokes, and spliced with moments of Miranda's trademark fast-paced rapping. Highlights include the eight-minute opener, “In the Heights,” arguably the film's most satisfying sequence and a rat-tat-tat of expertly composed shots, edits, and creative flourishes, while the swimming pool-set extravaganza “96,000” is a Busby Berkeley-inspired number in which the camera literally dives beneath the water, only to burst through the surface a moment later to reveal hundreds of dancers of all shapes and sizes, moving and splashing in synchronisation.
Like the best musicals, In the Heights is about trying to find where you belong in a world that is constantly trying to prove otherwise. As residents battle rising rent prices in a fast-moving city that seems intent on laying waste to everything they hold dear, gentrification is a theme that can't be ignored. But ultimately the focus here falls on the immigrant experience, specifically that of the second-generation, a struggle that proves perfectly suited to the musical format: the parents of these characters sacrificed everything to ensure their futures, but now their kids are disillusioned and displaced for a whole new set of reasons, caught between feeling like they're where they belong but not quite; like they want more but haven't got the means to make it happen.
Admittedly, there's a twenty minute section that comes just after the halfway mark where the movie loses its – until then – unbroken sense of pacing; the first hour is also noticeably stronger than the second, mainly down to having the catchier songs and a couple of changes from the stage show that feel slightly shoe-horned into place. Yet if you can't appreciate what does work about this, I suspect all joy has evacuated you body and there is no hope of recovery. For anyone looking for the ideal reintroduction to cinema, prepare to be blown away by the sweltering force of sheer creativity on display. The summer officially starts with your viewing. This one scales the heights – and then some.
In the Heights is in cinemas from 18 June.Where to watch