After a year filled with torment, frustration and melancholy, many of us were yearning for something uplifting. And it’s safe to say that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s exuberant musical, In The Heights, gives cinema and musical fans alike something to celebrate.
This adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2005 stage musical practically bursts with exuberance and charm, revelling in New York’s Latinx community of Washington Heights. Yet underneath the frivolous exterior, there lies a compelling social commentary exposing a reality littered with prejudice and systemic oppression.
Many critics have drawn similarities between this movie-musical and West Side Story: both feature Latinx communities and include extravagant dances set on the streets of New York City. However, while West Side Story is rooted in conflict and tragedy, this musical is the complete opposite. There is no formulaic villain, but rather a story about self-discovery, Latin American Heritage and how to manifest and realise your dreams.
We are introduced to our central character and narrator Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young bodega worker who yearns to return to his homeland—the Dominican Republic—to open a beachside bar. Ramos radiates charm and charisma: a constant delight with his naïve smile and excitable persona. While the story is told through his flashback, we are introduced to several other characters. Sparks blaze between Usnavi and the stylish Vanessa (Melissa Barerra), who works in a nearby nail salon but aspires to be a fashion designer. Nina (Leslie Grace) returns to the neighbourhood from Stanford University. Despite being worshiped upon arrival for her social ascendance, she is disenchanted with studying and wants to drop out. That, alongside the added financial strain on her dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and the lingering romantic interest from her ex-boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins), everyone’s predicaments are craftily entwined with each other.
We are thrown right into the vibrant centre of Washington Heights. So much energy thrives within this district, boasting explosive choreography, song after song. The acclaimed “96,000” musical number was the perfect choice to whet the appetites of musical theatre lovers. After all this lockdown lethargy, this high energy show number in the swimming pool was a welcome change for everyone. That intricate shot of the synchronized swimmers was reportedly inspired by 1952’s Busby Berkeley–Esther Williams movie Million Dollar Mermaid. Through adopting visual elements of the classic Hollywood musical era, and updating it with modern choreography and cast made up primarily of POC dancers, it manages to both pay a fitting tribute yet also give it a refreshing modern revamp.
Impressively, even with such large scale celebratory musical numbers, there is still a grounded, intimate, community feel. As such, when some of the horrific discrimination these characters face is exposed, it is all the more gut-wrenching. For example, it is revealed that Nina has faced so much discrimination at Stanford, including being accused of theft, that she felt there is “no community” there. This otherness is also encapsulated through the wise matriarchal figure of Abuela (Spanish for ‘Grandmother’) Claudia, played by Olga Merediz. Her motto, “Paciencia y fe” (“patience and faith”), refers to her perseverance through the hardships faced when she emigrated to America. Faced with culture shock, she gradually acquires the strength and hope to overcome the adversity. Her solo song, both full of sorrow yet simultaneously radiating strength, is mesmerising. An emotional powerhouse, she could be in talks next year for a Best Supporting Actress gong. Aside from her stellar vocal talent, there is a powerful message to be taken from Abuela Claudia’s story. Your dream may be hard to achieve—life can throw obstacles in your way. However, by channeling your pain and maintaining dignity to rise above adversity, making a stand for what you believe in, you can make it.
Vibrant and stylish, with emotionally resonant songs and great morals, can any problems be found with In The Heights? With such fast-paced songs, sometimes it feels like you never get a moment to breathe. Interjecting some slower songs, to truly allow the characters’ woes or exposition sink in, might have been a nice breather from all the lively singing and dancing.
Additionally, the political statements can sometimes appear trite or superficial. All the characters’ stories of oppression or racism are told as throwaway anecdotes, never exposing us to or truly exploring the grim brutality. Instead, the climactic electrical outage becomes a metaphor to assert a feeling of powerlessness within society. Compare this to West Side Story, where we see first-hand one of our protagonists taunted with racist slurs and abused. Despite how harrowing it is, audiences are exposed to racial tensions on-screen, making the message of powerlessness more potent.
Where In The Heights excels is embracing a community’s Latin American roots through outstanding choreography, endearing characters and memorable songs. This is a celebration of heritage in all its glory, and it’s so enjoyable to watch.
In The Heights was released in UK cinemas on 18 June 2021.
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