Towards the end of the 1939 musical classic 'The Wizard of Oz', Dorothy reflects on her fantastical journey, that "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with." This notion of finding true joy and fulfilment in relation to home and family is echoed almost over 80 years later in another musical film, though the imaginary land of Oz and the open plains of Kansas are replaced by the bustling, multicultural streets of the upper Manhattan neighbourhood of Washington Heights, and the perennial icon of traditional American dreams and values in the 20th century shifted to the hopes and dreams of America in the 21st, embodied by people whose heritages reaches across oceans but whose lives and ambitions are intrinsically linked to the American continent under their feet.
'In The Heights', adapted from the stage musical by multi-award winning team of lyricist and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, follows a group of young people, either immigrant or first-generation Americans, in the predominantly Dominican community in Washington Heights. Our guide is ambitious bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos, 'Hamilton', 'A Star Is Born'), who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic and reopening his late father's business. Over the course of a particularly hot summer, Usnavi and his friends and family have their faith and dreams put to the test, and search for answers for where they belong, whether within the safety and hardship of their fading community or by leaving it behind.
From the moment the first beat of Miranda's ecstatic, bombastic score begins, you can feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The musical form is such a delicate one, and often the translation process to film is hampered by a lack of faith or belief in the conceit of storytelling through song, but 'In The Heights' makes it immediately clear that not only is it unafraid of such a conceit and intends to embrace it, but there is simply no better way of telling this story. This is a work of tremendous emotional, thematic and musical scope, turning the few blocks of Washington Heights into an epic landscape where honest ambitions and dreams can be writ large on the scale they deserve, where a sidewalk becomes a stage and a street comes an artery and a roof a shimmering staircase to the stars. Song is not just the emotional language of the film but of the people within it, the purest and most primal way to express their joy, sadness, anger and passion. 'In The Heights' is a film that wears its heart very much on its sleeve, as with all of Miranda's work, and in almost all cases, turns this unabashed sentimentality into its greatest weapon.
The landscape of 'In The Heights' is in the process of tectonic shifts. For many of the characters, these shifts are intimate and personal - Usnavi's desire to return to his roots; college student Nina (Leslie Grace) and her feelings of being an outsider at Stanford University, longing for the safety of her community; aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and her need to break out of Washington Heights and build a life for herself in the affluent downtown. There's also the concerning financial shifts affecting the businesses of Nina's father Kevin (Jimmy Smits, TV's 'NYPD Blue') and salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), threatened by gentrification and outside business influences. Linking all of these, and woven deep into the DNA of 'In The Heights', is the fraught experience of immigrant Americans, drawn with the promises of prosperity and safety and the American Dream, only to find a system built to impede, suppress and dehumanise them, embodied by the community's warm and weary Cuban matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) and the youthful anger of Usnavi's teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV).
This doesn't even begin to cover the vast tapestry of stories, experiences and cultures found within 'In The Heights', but what links them all is the need to find a place to blossom, grow and build an honest life within a system that actively tries to prevent them from doing so. The primary experience of the film is one of joy and energy and exhilaration, but what gives it power is the undercurrent of anger mixed with a defiant celebration of culture and identity. It's also a story of what happens when youthful dreams and ambitions of young people of colour collide with these systems of oppression and how they can impact their relationship with who they are, where they come from and what possible journeys could lie ahead of them. The beauty of Miranda's score and Alegría Hudes' screenplay is how carefully this struggle is woven within the emotional journey of the characters and the community, which only makes them feel more powerful, potent and immediate.
All of this is inherent in the award-winning material, but would not guarantee the success of the film if the director was not so thoroughly in sync with its conceit and beating heart. Director Jon M. Chu dazzled with his superb work on 'Crazy Rich Asians' (2018), but that now feels like a test-run for his exuberant, imaginative and ambitious approach to 'In The Heights', where his skill with spectacle, dance, music and storytelling meet their perfect match. The film moves with a propulsive energy that almost never lets up, and Chu uses each successive musical moment to further open the scope of the film without losing the intimacy of its stories. It's a cliché to say that the city in which a film is set is like another character, but Chu achieves that with Washington Heights by making sure that every person we see on every stoop and street corner has a story. He doesn't achieve this by worrying about gags and situational comedy, but by capturing the sights, smells, sounds and bustle of a complex multicultural community with customs and social ecology born out of their proximity and shared experience as immigrant Americans.
The primary experience of the film is one of joy and energy and exhilaration, but what gives it power is the undercurrent of anger mixed with a defiant celebration of culture and identity.
The film engulfs you like a hug, wraps around you with warmth and openness, allowing you to step in and revel in all its beautiful sights and sounds. Chu's work is so close to being a slam dunk that the fact he never fully finds his rhythm within the musical moments feels a tad disappointing. The cinematography and editing are fractionally out of step with the score, and the scope of many of the numbers would require a touch more imagination to fully capture them. There's also a framing device to the film that feels out of step with the pre-existing material, and occasionally falls into the trap of telling when the rest of the film is showing. We're only talking about maybe 10-15% of the film though. This is the closest anyone has come in years to a wholly successful musical film, and those moments where everything clicks into place - like the pulsating club sequence, the devastating and impossibly imaginative moment for Abuela Claudia, 'Paciencia y Fe' or the enormous spectacle of '96,000' - are so incredible as to almost make up for any shortcomings.
As for the cast, there's not much to say - they're basically impeccable. From the moment he appears, it's clear that Anthony Ramos is the real deal, and his performance as Usnavi sends electricity across the screen in every shot he appears. His command of his character, the music and the choreography is impressive on every level, and he finds the perfect balance to make Usnavi an arresting protagonist, a passionate advocate, a keen intelligence and a complete doofus all at once. Each actor is given their moment to shine and each of them take it, whether it be Leslie Grace in Nina's signature number 'Breathe' or the quiet devastation on Gregory Diaz IV's face as Sonny realises his future may be in jeopardy. I haven't even mentioned the tremendous work from Corey Hawkins, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco or even Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. What unites this incredible cast is an insatiable love for the source material and what it has to say, but also a complete ownership of the material. The true spectacle of 'In The Heights' is how this work, contained on these few blocks in Manhattan, can speak to the complex, breathtaking and devastating power, resilience, passion and determination of immigrant Americans, stories that are as vividly written in the dedicated and talented bodies of these actors as it is in the words they speak and sing, the craft that captures them or the very pavements on which we see them walk.
'In The Heights' is a special kind of film musical miracle, one that digs deep under your skin and sends bolts of electricity through your heart every time you think about it. The mark for a successful translation of a musical from stage to screen for me is if, while watching the film, I could never imagine it on stage, so wholly integrated are the two art forms. That was absolutely the case with this film, because the canvas on which Jon M. Chu realises Lin-Manual Miranda's beloved modern classic is so expansive and exciting that I couldn't imagine a stage being able to contain all of its energy. I haven't been able to stop thinking about 'In The Heights' since the moment the credits ended, and even with its flaws, I'm sure it'll end up as one of my favourite films of 2021. And after a year where we were separated from our friends and families and the cities in which we lived, from the electricity of bodies and dance and song - those primal acts of expression that stretch back as far as we've been on this earth - 'In The Heights' is like the first sun after a long winter, dazzling and bright and life-affirming.