A summer musical of this calibre, much like the cinema-going experience itself, is both a spectacular return to a bygone era and a ground-breaking triumph of cultural celebration.
A winner of four Tony Awards from 13 nominations for its 2008 Broadway production, “In the Heights” hasn’t only survived intact, but thrived beautifully in its transition from those hallowed American stages (still shuttered due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic) to the global silver screen (open, at least here).
Based on the book by Quiara Alegría Hudes from a concept by Lin-Manuel Miranda, also the mastermind of the extraordinary music and lyrics (a unique fusion of Latin American music, hip-hop, soul and freestyle rap), rest assured that the magic of this original stage musical has never burned brighter. Miranda would go on to achieve even greater genre mashing, and creating, success with his other Tony Awards winner “Hamilton” eight years later. Miranda plays a small role here as Piragüero, the Piragua Guy, while there is a nice nod to “Hamilton” over the telephone but that’s all I’m going to tell you.
A towering testament to the hopes and dreams of an immigrant community in a city of immigrants, in this case Washington Heights in New York City, this film is a miracle of musical storytelling. Its acting, writing, directing and choreography of music and lyrics, singing and dancing sequences sow themselves together seamlessly, each supports the other equally without one of these individually essential elements becoming overpowering or underwhelming. By creating one cohesive narrative comprised of multiple distinct character arcs, “In the Heights” makes the difficulty of juggling all of these tectonic plates simultaneously appear effortless. Of course, that’s how it’s supposed to appear, after all.
Set in the majority over the course of one hot, auspicious day, “In the Heights” dazzles from its opening overture of the same name and the other energetic company performances ‘96,000’, ‘Alabanza’ and ‘Carnaval del Barrio’ to the ‘Finale’. Usnavi de la Vega (a charismatic Anthony Ramos) dreams of reviving his late father’s business in the Dominican Republic but currently owns a bodega where his cousin Sonny (a spirited Gregory Diaz IV) also works. He yearns, however, for Vanessa Morales (a luminous Melissa Barrera), who hopes to become a fashion designer; her want shines through the piercing ‘It Won’t Be Long Now’, but presently works in a salon owned by Daniela (an electric Daphne Rubin-Vega) who is being priced out of her neighbourhood due to rising rents and will have to move her business.
Vega’s friend Benny (a charming Corey Hawkins) pines for Nina Rosario (a vibrant Leslie Grace) who returns from an Ivy League University between semesters but feels the pressure of representing her community there while trying to fit in. She is undecided on whether to return at all due to the financial expense placed on her father (a subtle Jimmy Smits) while “Abuela” Claudia (a heart-breaking Olga Mereditz) is the unofficial matriarch who adopted the neighbourhood as her children; her journey is illustrated through the haunting ‘Paciencia y Fe’, just one highlight among too many to choose from.
Exploring the theme of sacrifice (a career for the sake of family, your cultural identity for want of outside acceptance and your dreams due to the improbability of achieving them in the face of racial discrimination), ‘In the Heights’ describes a conventionally impoverished neighbourhood of New York City that is actually culturally wealthy beyond its outsiders’ understanding. By using the best of Broadway in Hollywood (Ramos performed a supporting duel role in ‘Hamilton’ while Rubin-Vega, Hawkins and Merediz, reprising her supporting role here from the stage, are Tony nominees), this most demanding of film musicals benefits from actors whom can actually sing; theatre vocal prowess wins hands down every single time. More of this, please!
An encapsulating extravaganza of life and death, love and passion, fantasy and reality, “In the Heights” is an emotional embrace of home, be it a place, a community and/or a family, as well as the trials and tribulations of bridging these troubled waters that hold the past in one hand the future in the other. From the streets of Washington Heights to the businesses that line them, the film is a kaleidoscopic colour palette of dreams waiting to come true if the means were only there. Watching the planes fly high through a cloudless sky overhead from the sidewalk hammers home the seemingly impossibility of those dreams, as does the ‘Blackout’ sequence where the voices of the neighbourhood blend and weave in song as they are literally and figuratively “powerless” as immigrants in a country of immigrants.
Indeed, while the film has heralded another major step forward for the mainstream entertainment industry with regard to the representation of Latin Americans, nevertheless, the film has been met with accusations of colourism. Although this is a valid point (the casting decisions to exclude Black Hispanic and Latino Americans, a predominant demographic of Washington Heights, from leading roles in a film that will immortalise the area appears questionable at best) this shouldn’t detract from what has been achieved here but give another major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros. distributed the film) reason enough to tell their story too.
An ensemble production paced to perfection, this film stands tall among its predecessors in the long and illustrious history of film musicals, a rare genre whose successful entrants make up an even more exclusive club, for all of the reasons above but most of all for its ambition in originality. While these ideas weren’t made solely for film from its inception, instead being tried and tested, over years of workshopping on stage, until proven successful before being adapted into the film before us now, this is arguably a harder hill to climb: a repeat success. What works well on stage doesn’t always on film.
Although it’s pure originality comes in the form of the stage musical, its film adaptation is just as ambitious due to the very fact that it works. Without doubt, “In the Heights” will go down in history as one of the greatest film musicals ever made.
“In the Heights” is in cinemas now.