Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights – film review

Feel-good movie hits the heights.

★★★★★

Still photo from the movie In The Heights showing Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera
Anthony Ramos & Melissa Barrera in In The Heights. Photo copyright Warner Bros Pictures

In The Heights is the most feel-good, uplifting movie I have seen in a long time.

It’s not a film of the stage show, it is a proper film in its own right, directed by Jon M Chu, who made Crazy Rich Asians. It’s packed with the most magnificent ensemble dancing build around stirring rap and Latin music and heartwarming stories about love and community. I know you may be tempted to wait to see it on your TV but I’m telling you, no matter how big your TV is, it will not do justice to the huge dance sequences nor that Latin beat.

It’s not quite sung-through but one song follows another so quickly that’s there are only short scenes of dialogue and then you’re on to another spectacular dance sequence. There’s dancing in the street, Fame style, there’s dancing in a club, Saturday Night Fever style, dancing on bleachers, Grease style,  and dancing in a swimming pool- Busby Berkeley style. You can see where the $55 million dollar budget went.

And there are romantic songs, the loveliest of which is between Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace, when they dance in a fantasy moment up the side of a building –La La Land style.

In The Heights started as a stage musical back in 2005, eventually opening on Broadway in 2008. It was Lin Manuel Miranda’s first hit, ten years before Hamilton.

Although there is a central character called Usnavi, a young man who owns the local store and is played with a delightfully shy manner by Anthony Ramos, this is the story of a Latinx neighbourhood in Washington Heights in north Manhattan. Almost equal weight is given to other members of the community, like the woman he fancies Vanessa, a vivacious performance by Melissa Barrera, his friend Benny played by the cool and handsome Corey Hawkins.

I don’t know why I’m saying he’s handsome because frankly, these are all highly attractive people. Like Nina who is the pride of the community because she has a place at  Stanford University. It’s a strong performance by Leslie Grace but she’s not only the cleverest person around, she’s also the most beautiful. Her father Kevin, the taxi business owner, is Mr Cool himself Jimmy Smits, for goodness sake, and Olga Merediz is the twinkling kind-faced matriarch of the community.

So what you don’t get are any horrible characters or any of the abrasiveness in relationships that can light up a movie with their sparks. It’s not that kind of movie. Having said that, the main characters have about as much depth as a paddling pool.

Arguably Quiara Alegría Hudes who wrote the book of the musical and wrote writes the movie screenplay. could have expanded on the characters because real people on stage carry you along much more easily than the close-up of people on film.

But it doesn’t really matter because the central character here is the community, one that answers discrimination by working hard and making a success of oneself. Yes, it’s a romantic ideal but it is an uplifting journey in which Usnavi, who longs to live in his homeland of the Dominican Republic, comes to realise the strengths of this little piece of Latin America in New York.

The action- and that’s not really the right word- builds up to an electricity blackout that occurs at the height of a very hot summer. And this is also the low point for the characters in the film- Nina having rejected financial help, a key character revealed as undocumented and therefore with limited prospects and the ever-present threat of repatriation, and Usnavi and Vanessa’s relationship in peril. And that’s about as much tension as this happy film generates. The blackout changes everything as the people, at first resigned, rediscover their community and the ways they can support each other.

Although there is romance, this is very much a family film with hardly a suggestion of sex. However, the three women (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco) who run a nail bar forced out by gentrification, are not only funny, they strut their stuff in no uncertain way. They’re almost from a Carry On film and this is just one way in which this film feels like a throwback to an earlier time.  Nostalgia is sewn into its fabric.

If you want cheering up, this is just the tonic you need. I had a smile on my face throughout.

And by the way, don’t leave before the end of the credits because Lin Manuel Miranda’s character, the Piragua seller, makes a return appearance.

Watch this review on the YouTube channel one Minute Theatre Reviews