Life itself is the chief antagonist of In the Heights. Here, ‘fights and endless debts and bills to pay’ are the status quo. Or so the chorus sing. This is Jon M. Chu’s infectiously buoyant adaptation of the eponymous Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Broadway hit of 2008. It’s a tale of dreamers, dancers and star crossed lovers. Gorgeously – almost distractingly – shot, this is a film that reminds as much as West Side Story as it does the blushed up beginnings of the Step Up franchise. The transition from stage to screen here borders on seamless. If it’s a little too blunt to be powerful, the film is nigh on impossible to dislike. In this day and age, that makes In the Heights a bonafide triumph.
An alumni of Miranda’s other great musical masterpiece – Hamilton – Anthony Ramos makes a winning lead as bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega. An immigrant to Washington Heights from the age of eight, Usnavi dreams of a return to his homeland: the Dominican Republic. ‘Jesus,’ he raps, ‘I’m jealous of it.’ Once there, Usnavi plans to reopen his father’s, now dilapidated, bar: El Sueñito. That’s: ‘little dream’. From a beach in the future, Usnavi recalls to a young audience the days that saw his passions finally come to fruition. It was a bygone Summer in which emotions heightened with the thermostat. One that would see a blackout – inspired by the power cut that really did hit Washington Heights in 1997 – bring everything to a head. Let fireworks fly.
In this vibrant neighbourhood, Usnavi is but one wish maker in a hotbed of overworked optimists. A dazzling opener, reminiscent of both the choreography of La La Land and rhythmic synchronicity of Hairspray, pays tribute both to the Heights and its residents. Jimmy Smits twinkles as Kevin Rosario, owner of the local taxi company and prolific saver, who works day and night to sustain his daughter’s (Leslie Grace’s Nina) costly education at Stamford. There’s Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), also dreaming of education, and best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who clings to the hope that he will one day graduate business school. He’s got the skills. Melissa Barrera, meanwhile, plays Vanessa, for whom Usnavi holds a candle. Vanessa talent for fashion design will take her far, if only she can secure herself a new home downtown.
Overseeing all, Olga Merediz elevates the film, with a gorgeous reprisal of the role that earned her a Tony nomination in the show’s original run. Merediz glimmers as Abuela Claudia, matriarch of the barrio. A lifetime spent scrubbing the floors of the whiter and wealthier – ‘the whole of the upper East Side’ – might never have won Claudia a place above the bread line but gave her a family and tremendous sense of self. ‘We had to assert our dignity in small ways,’ she tells a struggling Nina, ‘little details that tell the world we are not invisible.’
And therein lies the heart of In the Heights. Its chief asset and, perhaps, singular flaw. If West Side Story found drama in division, In the Heights parables the rose tinted virtues of community. Of neighbourhood unification against the odds. Familial conflicts don’t outlive the scenes that spawn them and the dark underbelly of racial discrimination is largely conveyed anecdotally. Indeed, the closest In the Heights comes to actively portraying the wreckage of white privilege is in the fleeting moment Vanessa’s rental rejection is played out in contrast to the warm welcome offered by her realtor to a white couple with a glowing credit record. It’s not fair. It’s brief.
Nina may tell of the racism she experienced first hand in Stamford but this is an off screen conflict and can’t help but lack the immediacy needed to truly make the point. To this end, the film’s gloss holds it back. Chu directs with exceptional flair, innovation and visual verve but leans closer to the MTV end of a scale, which has hard hitting social commentary as its polar. There are spectacular peaks – a CGI boosted pool party and courtyard carnival stick out – and energy enough to see the film well past its runtime. The cast are strong, the songs catchy and sense of place beautiful. On those terms, you really can’t fault it.