sun 01/08/2021

In the Heights review - to life, Lin-Manuel Miranda-style | reviews, news & interviews

In the Heights review - to life, Lin-Manuel Miranda-style

In the Heights review - to life, Lin-Manuel Miranda-style

2008 Tony winning musical transfers joyously to the screen

Uptown girls (and boys, too) - the cast of 'In the Heights'

The general uptick of late in film versions of stage musical hits continues apace with In the Heights, which, to my mind anyway, is far more emotionally satisfying and visually robust onscreen than it was on Broadway, where it won the 2008 Tony for Best Musical.

(An Off West End version had multiple iterations, as well.) Already mired in controversy about the alleged "colourism" of its creators and the fact that its opening weekend underperformed at the box office, Jon M Chu's adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's pre-Hamilton vehicle for himself survives such discussion and transcends it, too.  

Fashioned, as is Hamilton, as a study in narrative and in the need to keep stories alive, In the Heights will do nicely as a gatekeeper (and complement) to Steven Spielberg's forthcoming remake of West Side Story: whereas that Broadway classic grounds its narrative in division, the governing affect of In the Heights is joy, and the New Yorker in me felt especially delighted to be transplanted afresh to my home city even if the pandemic has made the fact of actually being there so difficult of late. 

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in 'In the Heights'On Broadway, Miranda played the lead character of the bodega-keeper, Usnavi: even the character's name has generated agitated discussion in these ever-contentious times. Too old now for his erstwhile starring role and eager in any case to pass the baton, Miranda has handed the part on to the surpassingly charming Anthony Ramos (pictured above left, with Melissa Barrera), a fellow Hamilton alum, while preserving for himself a choice cameo as the local purveyor of piraguas: the syrup-covered shaved ice that is a favourite with the Latin populace of Washington Heights, the uptown enclave of Manhattan referenced in the title. 

Onstage, the material felt sweet but comparatively directionless, which is no longer the case onscreen. As scripted by the Pulitzer-winning writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, who got a Tony nod for her book for the stage version, the film deftly weaves a mosaic of longing and love shared across various narratives, and generations, too. We clock the yearning of Usnavi's desire for Vanessa (Barrera), a fashion designer who profits from his attentions by getting free coffees aplenty from his store, just as the unhappy Stanford undergrad Nina (Leslie Grace) falls into the clinch of the taxi dispatcher, Benny (Corey Hawkins), at one point sharing a tryst on the side of a building - don't try that at home. Spreading her own stardust of generosity is the childless Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising the throat-clutching part she originated on Broadway), who has clasped the entire neighbourhood to her heart. Those expecting knife crime, gangs and urban discord can look elsewhere, though director Chu's forthcoming movie of the blockbuster show Wicked will presumably acknowledge somehow the commentary on fascism coursing within that work.

At once a celebration and, in its way, a requiem, In the Heights doesn't aim for documentary verisimilitude: although a blackout features prominently in the plot, New York's descent into darkness is seen to pose no danger here. The spirit of the film - sweet-natured but never syrupy - is in the commingling of people that itself is moving to behold at a time when we have been so long separated from the social whirl. Instead, the film locates a bravura both in the comparative intimacy of Merediz's showstopping "Paciencia y Fe", a dream ballet here displaced to the subterranean world of the New York subway, and in the explosive  "96,000", a set piece granting 90 dancers a giddy pool-soaked abandon that would be the envy of Esther Williams. (All credit to lead choreographer Christopher Scott and his aptly ethnically diverse team.) 

The material can and does darken: you feel the tension between Nina and her father (the venerable Jimmy Smits, in immediately commanding form), who is determined at all costs to secure the education for his daughter that he was himself denied.

And the passage of time between 2008 and now has allowed the plight of America's DACA community - that's to say, the "dreamers" - to get folded into the plot as it impacts upon Usnavi's young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, who suggests a junior version of Miranda himself). There's a wry and winning Hamilton in-joke not to be revealed here, and a larger nod to The Wizard of Oz in the prevailing message of a decidedly unpedantic film that finds the restless Usnavi concluding that, truly, there's no place like home: the movie comes to rest on the very note of acceptance, hopefulness and peace we could use a lot more of just now.

Onstage, the material felt sweet but directionless, which is no longer the case onscreen, thanks to its deftly woven mosaic of longing and love

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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