Review: In the Heights

Lin-Manuel Miranda has made quite the mark on the entertainment industry. In just a few short years, the actor, producer, writer and occasional rapper has put his name to multiple projects across all media, garnering acclaim each time. Now the multitalented artist’s career has come full circle, thanks to a film adaptation of the very work that made him famous.

Located on the northern part of Manhattan Island is Washington Heights, an ethnically-diverse neighbourhood where the lives of four twentysomething friends are at a crossroads. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is about to close his grocery store and return to his childhood home in the Dominican Republic; Nina (Leslie Grace) is returning to the Heights after her unhappy experiences at university; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) aspires to move away and become a fashion designer, while Benny (Corey Hawkins) has hopes of courting his long-time crush.

Before making its way to the screen, In the Heights was a stage musical that had a successful run on Broadway, garnering multiple Tony Awards in the process. The film’s theatrical origins are evidenced in the multiple dance numbers, which see row after row of performers eagerly singing along with the protagonists and moving in-time to the soundtrack, not unlike they would in the blockbuster musicals of decades past. The choreography is nothing short of sublime, outdoing most contemporary films for energy and timing.

In further recognition of its beginnings on the stage, the film boasts having members of the original Broadway cast, including Miranda himself – although he’s widely known for fronting the projects he oversees, on this occasion Lin-Manuel is taking a backseat, appearing only intermittently as a street vendor. Of the veteran performers, Olga Merediz is the undisputed standout as Claudia, the community’s honorary Abuela, or grandmother; she plays her role with warmth, spirit and grace, and makes it’s impossible not to be moved by her number “Paciencia y Fe”.

Also impressive are the younger cast members, who never let their lack of experience sour their respective performances. Anthony Ramos is solid as the film’s lead and narrator, showing remarkable assuredness for somebody who has never headlined a blockbuster before; Gregory Diaz IV looks equally confident as Usnavi’s teenage protégé Sonny, proving a charm throughout; and Corey Hawkins, who is usually tasked with portraying macho figures, comfortably shows off his softer personality in the role of Benny.

Each of these characters (and many more besides) have their own motivations and conflicts to contend with, thereby requiring the film to juggle multiple plotlines, which it does adeptly. Ample time is afforded to every protagonist, none of whom ever overstay their welcome and all of whom have struggles that viewers can relate to and identify with – even those without a migrant background. Welcomely, In the Heights reflects on the broader challenges faced by New Yorkers too, including gentrification and the lack of rights for migrants.

The main drawcard of a musical is, of course, the music; but weirdly, this is an area where In the Heights falters. While the songs are pleasant enough, they aren’t particularly catchy or melodic, meaning they are unlikely to stick in one’s head once the film is over; the prevalence of rapping in soundtrack is another hitch, being impressive initially yet becoming tiresome not long after. (It’s a fault not uncommon to contemporary musicals, with La La Land, The Greatest Showman and A Star is Born all contending with a similar problem.)

A smaller issue to be had with In the Heights is the prevalence of Spanish in both the songs and the dialogue. This won’t be bothersome for audiences in the Americas or parts of Europe; but for those who aren’t the least bit fluent in Spanish (i.e. yours truly) trouble will be had comprehending what the characters are saying. There’s many a scene in the movie that would benefit from the application of subtitles, which in this instance would be less of a one-inch-tall barrier and instead an informative tool for the Gringos of the world.

One of the better stage adaptations to emerge in recent times, In the Heights is a vibrant ode to migrant communities and those who seek more out of life. A delightful ensemble cast and resonant, multilateral screenplay are the winning factors of this blockbuster, which may not boast the infectious tunes of other musicals, but more than rivals them for heart.

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