VOD film review: In the Heights
Song and dance numbers10
Ivan Radford | On 31, Dec 2021
Director: Jon M Chu
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barerra, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Lin-Manuel Miranda
“This is going to be an emotional rollercoaster,” Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is told in In the Heights. A bodega owner, he dreams of one day escaping New York and making it home to the Dominican Republic and opening up a beachside bar. We meet him in a coastal bar scene, as he relates his story to a group of enraptured kids – and like them, the ensuing emotional ride has us eating out of the palm of his hand.
In the Heights takes its name from Washington Heights, Manhattan, home to an expansive, vibrant Latin American community. Inspired by a blackout that occurred in 1999, the film follows events around a major power cut, but is never short of electricity. That’s partly thanks to the spark between Usnavi and Vanessa (Melissa Barerra), a nail salon artist with ambitions of becoming a fashion designer. Playing out in tandem with their romance is the return of Nina (Leslie Grace) to the neighbourhood, having gone off to study at Stanford, where he ex-boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins) is still holding a candle for her.
Nina is jaded by the racism she’s experienced, and a running subplot follows the financial struggles of her dad, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), to support her through her studies. But what’s remarkable about In the Heights is how upbeat and carefree so much of it is, whether it’s the humourous interplay between Usnavi and his cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz), or the serenading of the local piragüero (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who serves as the chirpy chorus of the ensemble.
Adapted from Miranda’s 2008 Broadway hit, with some tweaks made to focus on Usnavi and Vanessa, the result is bursting with romance and energy. At the helm, Jon M Chu is a perfect fit, slotting together each set piece with a dazzling mix of old-school Hollywood and modern technical feats. He zooms from corner to corner and in and out of groups, never pausing except to admire the talent on display.
The result is a lively portrait of a community of people fighting against displacement, each person with their own dreams and desires. It’s a tale that appreciates the sacrifices that parents and older generations have made to make those dreams possible, and a showcase for the thrill of chasing them. By celebrating each achievement, it manages to feel inspirational more than aspirational – an emotional rollercoaster that only stretches upwards, building on the the sense of belonging that family and friends can bring.
Accusations of colorism in the casting have a valid point, but there’s no taking away from the joy on display; above all, this is a film that understands how freedom can be found in the way a song and dance number whisks you away from the struggles and conflicts of the real world. “The streets were made of music,” we hear at one point. Not merely content with that, Chu and Miranda craft a heightened world where the very buildings are paved with music – and even the walls are made for anyone to waltz across. A dazzling showstopper.