Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Stephanie Beatriz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jimmy Smits, DaStephanie Beatrizscha
Runtime: 2 hrs 23 mins
Released By: Warner Bros
Opening Day: 8 July 2021
Synopsis: The creator of “Hamilton” and the director of “Crazy Rich Asians” invite you to a cinematic event, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big. Lights up on Washington Heights. The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies this vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is the likeable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines and sings about a better life. “In the Heights” fuses Lin-Manuel Miranda’s kinetic music and lyrics with director Jon M. Chu’s lively and authentic eye for storytelling to capture a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience.
Hungry for projects, studios are riffling through the past for a quick way to make content, and adaptations have been one of the treasuries they’ve been drawing from. With the Broadway breakout Hamilton under his belt, Lin-Manuel Miranda portfolio became Warner Bros’s target, given how his material not only brought relevant messaging on diversity and social causes, but also introduced other genres of music such as hip-hop onto the stage.
But the studio went one step further. Instead of reaching for the obvious hit, they retraced his timeline to pluck his first musical of the same name as their new project. Under the hands of director Jon M. Chu, the film is a candy-coloured celebration of Dominican pride, as well as passionate musical presentation of every immigrant’s dreams and struggles.
Miranda, who plays the title role Usnavi in his play, passes the reins to a charming Anthony Ramos - a casting decision that has many won over. It’s hard not to like Ramos - he’s the perfect intersection whether you’re looking at it from a racial, age or maturity, and it’s that borderline character that makes us believe in his journey.
You see, Usnavi owns a bodega his immigrant parents left behind in Washington Heights, but his greatest ambition is to come full circle by returning to the Dominican Republic to set up a beach bar in honour of his papi. “Best days of my life,” he chants, everytime someone asks. But when the time finally comes, he starts to question what he’s leaving behind.
There’s Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) - his lanky cousin and store helper who insists his future is better off in the US. Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is his long-time crush who is finally beginning to warm to his advances… just as she’s moving across town to find inspiration and opportunities as a fledgling fashion designer. It seems that everyone has plans of their own, except Usnavi’s good-natured abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz reprising her Broadway role), though she insists she’s only joining him if he convinces Sonny to come along.
Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the book for the stage play, picks up screenwriting duties here and unfolds this main story amidst a carnival atmosphere of feisty salon ladies and talented street artists, while concurrently lining up the arcs faithfully to the original play. And though this plays out vibrantly most of the time, this reviewer can’t help but wonder if some can be sacrificed to keep the story trim.
At 143 minutes, In The Heights is banking on its flamboyant cast and rousing soundtrack to keep audiences engaged, and it does for the most part, but there are repetitive segments that feel like awkward steps when stacked beside the snazzier sequences.
One such example is the additional romantic arc between Usnavi’s childhood friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) and his boss’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace). While they bring some great moments - especially that gravity-defying interlude for “When the sun goes down” with the gorgeous George Washington bridge in the background - but the simpering relationship has none of its original classism intent, and feels almost Disney with odious amounts of bashfulness.
Better time could be spent on the main couple to flesh out their tension, or even used to massage in the updated topics of microaggression and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy, because I would have enjoyed witnessing the deeper impact of such issues and thus gotten a better emotional investment.
But it’s hard not to like In The Heights despite its subject misallotment - it’s way too flashy for that! In true Chu fashion, the song and dance sequences are a visual spectacle, with just a nudge from special effects to make it fabulous. The rest is just an exhibition of pure Latin American soul, with enough pop, hip-hop, salsa, and ballads to have feet tapping and hearts singing.
(Just like the people it presents, this film is a mirrorball in a kaleidoscope, always chugging with spectacle, although a richer script would make this a better ride)
Review by Morgan Awyong