In the Heights

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera, In The Heights. Image courtesy Warner Bros

PG, 143 minutes

4 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Joyous, vibrant. There are good grounds for this song and dance extravaganza becoming a hit. What’s not to like about appealing lead characters and a cast of thousands?

It was filmed on location in Upper Manhattan, NYC, with the graceful Washington Bridge as occasional backdrop. The streets and squares of Washington Heights neighbourhood must have been electric with colour and movement. Who wouldn’t have wanted to join the street party?

The stage musical on which it is based, from a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, both Pulitzer-winning writers, arrived on Broadway in 2008.

It must have been a useful antidote as the GFC got underway. We may turn to it to lift the spirits in 2021 too.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is of course famous for that other stage musical, Hamilton, which he wrote entirely. It has become a phenomenon in American theatrical history, breaking records at the Tony Awards and receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016.

Nothing grandiloquent, but an American dream of sorts, a little dream or el suenito to keep you going

Miranda makes a modest cameo here, threading his way through the Washington Heights neighbourhood selling ices from his cart. He is the piruagero guy who is in competition with Mister Softee for the money that people will pay for flavoured ices to keep themselves cool.

In the Heights takes place over the course of a few days, dog days that lead into a heatwave and eventual power-out that paralyses the neighbourhood.

The lead character, Usnavi (an engaging Anthony Ramos), is the guy who runs the corner store, the bodega, by definition at the heart of community life.

Like everyone else, he has a story to tell. Nudging 30, he is thinking of swapping his American dream for a return to the Dominican Republic that he left with family when he was just 8 years old.

He nurses a crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) working in the beauty salon next door, but he’s so backward in coming forward that his young cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) has to arrange a first date for him.

It’s hard for Usnavi, and for us, to tell how interested she is in him. She paints nails but dreams of opening her own fashion design business.

And Vanessa is a more driven personality, like Nina (Leslie Grace), who is home for the summer. A humiliating experience at Stanford University has punctured Nina’s resolve and she wants to drop out, but her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), won’t hear of it. Boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins), the only lead character who isn’t Spanish-speaking, is listening, though.

Neighbourhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia, who arrived from Cuba with her parents in 1943, may just have given up on her dreams. But she understands the importance of small gestures, asserting personal dignity in little ways to tell the world you exist.

Although a celebration of community, there’s a subtext of nostalgia for what is only temporary

Cuban actress, Olga Merediz, had the role of Claudia for the entire run of the stage musical. She certainly has a lovely voice.

Everyone on this block has a dream. Nothing grandiloquent, but an American dream of sorts, a little dream or el suenito. A ray of hope for the future that helps to keep things going.

The dialogue has its moments but it’s the exuberant, hyper-energetic dance numbers that leave the strongest impression.

The energy of the fully choreographed dance film, like the Step Up franchise, isn’t seen on screen that much. In the Heights even has the occasional Buzby Berkeley moment.

Although In the Heights is a celebration of community, there is a subtext of nostalgia here. Say ‘Washington Heights’, Usnavi urges the kids listening to his dream stories, before it goes away. Community is only temporary.

Nina’s dad remembers that when he bought his business the entire block was Irish.

Besides the Dominicans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans of Washington Heights, it has seen large communities of Greek, Russian, German and Jewish immigrants there in the past. And as the residents move on from the Heights, the gentrifiers will move in.

Scratching the surface of the city’s history, you realise that so much has been transitory since the Native American tribes were forced out of their home. Wave upon wave of immigrants have moved through, on their way to a new and better life.

It’s their joy, energy and aspiration while they are in that moment that is catching.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 June 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes