Washington Heights, Manhattan. Where ‘the streets are made of music’ and everyone has a dream for something more. For Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), that dream is going back to the country of his birth – the Dominican Republic – and the place where he was happiest. His now-deceased parents ran a bodega which he yearns to go back and revive, and the opportunity to do so is arriving sooner than he thinks. But what about Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the seemingly unrequited love-of-his-life, who dreams of becoming a fashion designer? Then there’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), Usanvi’s best friend who dreams of going to college and his ex-girlfriend Nina (Leslie Grace) who is already there but dreams of not returning for another academic year.
And so the highs and lows of these dreams play out, with soaring music and huge group dance numbers. It’s all so superbly joyous.
We open with an older Usnavi sat at his bodega on the beach, telling a group of children – at least one of whom seems to be his – about the place of his youth, where he became the man he is today and how he finally got to where he now is. His retelling starts on 82 degree day, ‘3 days till blackout’. We learn all about him, Vanessa, Benny, Nina and many other members of their community as living & dreaming. With the occasional musical anthem. As the mercury rises, so do the emotions; a sense that we’re building towards something momentous, either for how brilliant or how awful it will be.
Writer Quiara Alegría Hudes’ effortlessly blends together these various tales of hope and woe, with charming & witty dialogue along the way. Jon M. Chu‘s direction ensures this isn’t just a film rendering of a theatrical production. This is an immersive living and breathing world we get to partake in and one that embraces us fully. Alice Brooks‘ cinematography is exquisite and breath-taking. Whilst the group dance numbers are rapturous, it’s a duet involving walking up a building – literally – that is the film at it’s most evocative, fully encapsulating the joys of young love. And the music by Lin-Manuel Miranda? I reckon that kid will go far…
As with Hamilton, you’ll probably find yourself giving a different answer anytime you’re asked to pick a favourite off the soundtrack. Right now I’m leaning towards ‘96,000’. It epitomises the effortless way the multiple stories are threaded together within the story and the yearning for wanting something more. And, speaking of Hamilton, Hamilfans will be thrilled at a couple of Easter eggs that make an appearance.
It would be amiss to raise one issue that frustrated whilst watching and since, the presentation of salon owner (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and her employee Vanessa (Stephanie Beatriz). Whilst both characters are brilliant, Beatriz especially being a total surprise for those more familiar with her role as Rosa in Brooklyn 99. It’s implied the two are in a relationship, but this is so implicit it could be coded as mother-daughter or even missed completely. It feels like such a missed opportunity for a film so rapturous about identity to then be so cautious in this representation.
This aspect aside, In The Heights, is cinematic joy personified. A total summer treat, see it on the biggest screen with the loudest speakers possible. (4/5 stars)
Out in UK cinemas from Friday 18th June.