Review: In the Heights

Director: Jon M Chu

Stars: Leslie Grace, Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera

The New York neighbourhood of Washington Heights – situated just off the Hudson river – is a melting pot of Latin American families, here spotlighted in Jon M Chu’s musical based on the stage show from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Chu – who a few summers ago lightened our load with Crazy Rich Asians – once more positions himself as a positive force in Hollywood for representation (though again, with some justification, he has found himself criticised for not cracking the door enough…).

In the Heights borrows happily from the Bollywood playbook, both in terms of its penchant for music and dancing (standardised occurrences in Indian cinema) and in its flush colour palette and sense of bustling vibrancy. To this end Chu aims to emphasise the sense of community and collectivism in a neighbourhood under threat. What follows is a fairly standard soap opera story of inter-connected lives held under the constant threat of gentrification.

Telling this tale is humble bodega clerk Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a native of the Dominican Republic who dreams of returning there one day to revive his father’s beachfront bar. But while his gaze – and his dreams – are set on long distances, his foreground is all about Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a local young woman who paints nails and has his heart stolen from the moment the film starts running.

Usnavi’s bestie Benny (Corey Hawkins), meanwhile, is enamoured with Nina (Leslie Grace), newly back in the neighbourhood from her first semester at Stanford, reeling from her first taste of class disparity in the world of higher education. She seems intent on dropping out, though that doesn’t sit right with her father, self-made businessman Kevin (Jimmy Smits). 

There are a gaggle of smaller subplots surrounding these two central avenues of interest, all of them intersecting at the corner of Usnavi’s convenience store. Running to 143 minutes, In the Heights prefers to swelter through a number of casually observed hot summer nights rather than strut anywhere quickly. After storming out of the gate with an opener that easily crashes through the ten minute mark (I’d started to wonder if, audaciously, it was all one number), In the Heights does settle to a pace that’s close to coasting. But the intent here is not intricate plotting but rather a sauntering sense of tapestry.

Musically, Miranda continues to contrast between the sexes to provide a sense of eclecticism. Barrera’s singing voice verges on the operatic, elevating Vanessa’s everyday dramas into the realms of the extraordinary, while the male singers – and Ramos particularly – are more prone to rapping their narratives. Nevertheless, when everyone gets involved you can rest assured that In the Heights is never far away from a hydrant-busting flash mob sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a Coca-Cola ad.

A couple of numbers (and their songs) stick out. The community en masse goes swimming to rhapsodise over what they’d each do if they won the lottery and the resulting sequence is a big-time charmer, while in the film’s over-achieving epilogue Hawkins and Grace have a duet that defies gravity and sets their world off axis by ninety degrees. As technically impressive as this is, you can still see the cracks in the paintwork, so to speak, but the very fact of it being a musical number gives it – and the movie at large – a pass. Staginess is part of the contract.

In the Heights is a plea for diversity, not just in our films but in our communities. That this little nook of New York will be consumed and white-washed within five years is deemed all but inevitable from start to finish. As such, the representational shout that comes out of Chu’s film feels vital, anthemic… but also, perhaps, a little co-opted already?

With it’s Hollywood sheen and copious product placements, the Washington Heights as presented here feels lensed through middle-class privilege already. As a result, there’s a continuing tension that it’s working class pride is little more than a branding exercise; something exploited but not fully understood or accurately represented at all. Is this poverty, or the glamourisation of poverty? 

This isn’t a new conundrum from musicals, though. By their very nature they are designed to heighten and celebrate the worlds they investigate. Delirium and escapism are part of the package deal. In the Heights trundles through its microdramas, but it provides enough pomp and lift to keep things engaging. And if there’s a somewhat undeniable mid-film sag, it’s more than made-up for in a third act that nails its numbers and pulls one or two narrative surprises. In retrospect they’re easy to spot coming, but Chu makes light work of diverting your attention.

 

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