In The Heights is the latest stage musical to find its way to the big screen. While it can be argued that the magic of the theatre is often lost when transitioning to film format, thankfully it feels right at home in the cinema here with its beautiful, sprawling urban set pieces. The Washington Heights are brought to life in a vibrant, living fashion, complementing the beats of the story in ways that you perhaps could not capture on stage. Here you truly are in the Heights.
Each morning Usnavi wakes to a photo of him and his father in his childhood home of the Dominican Republic, the ‘best days of his life’. This theme of yearning for other times, other places rings throughout the film and is explored through a variety of characters. Some yearn to escape, others have tried and struggled, and for some Washington Heights was their escape. Anthony Ramos, who plays Usnavi, is an actor I’d love to see more of in the future. I am sure he has a bright path ahead of him after his performance here. After his smaller role in A Star Is Born, it was great to see him at the forefront.
Elaborate dance sequences
I was familiar with Lin-Miranda Manuel’s work through Hamilton, and I remember how powerful the choreography and stagecraft was. Likewise, there is so much spectacle throughout In The Heights, it was always exciting seeing how far it could push its elaborate dance sequences. Watching the credits roll at the end, the number of dancers involved blew me away. The list seemed endless.
While many of its story beats are clichéd, with a boy-meets-girl narrative at its core, its simplicity never bothered me. It is a tale of family, home, love and the celebration of life. And its songs did a fantastic job of conveying these themes through a diverse fusion of genres, ranging from hip-hop to salsa to R&B. The music maintained the flow at all times, and it was such a pleasure to watch from start to finish. The energy was persistent and dynamic, even when it slowed down towards the middle for a more sombre period of reflection.
Political undertones, but a film brimming with hope
Like Hamilton,it does have political undertones, but they are not always at the forefront. It touches on systemic racism and the struggles of documentation in the US. But compared to Hamilton it is a subtle affair. While it was enough for me, arguably it does sacrifice meaningful discussion for more satisfying, upbeat resolutions.
It is, however, a film brimming with hope. Watching it felt like a cool rainbow ice on a hot summer’s day. A nostalgic shot of well-needed energy after the exhaustion of 2020. The film left me feeling raw, untapped, hopeful. After 2020 and the strange collective experience that was lockdown, In The Heights is a sunburst of energy signalling a new beginning. This is definitely one I can’t wait to revisit in the future. It’s the perfect film for summer, and the world is certainly a happier place with it in it.
But it has faced criticism
As an aside, while I absolutely loved In The Heights, I think it is important to mention that it has faced criticism for its representation of skin tone diversity in Washington Heights when casting its leading roles. I recommend reading into this. For a film that celebrates love and intermingling cultures, this is an especially prominent issue. Rather, it depicts only one side of the Latinx community, neglecting in particular the Afro-Latinx community. While I do not believe this was a malicious decision, for a film called In The Heights, it could have done a better job of portraying all life in Washington Heights, and it has opened up further discussion of representation and colourism in Hollywood. I hope, going forward, Lin-Miranda Manuel’s apologies can be backed up by future casting decisions.
WORDS Andy Porter