In the Heights review – a blast of sunshine, hope and hotpants

·2-min read

This adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2005 stage musical bursts on to the screen like a confetti cannon. Director Jon M Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) delivers a blast of sunshine, hope and hotpants. But unpeel the song-and-dance romance and escapism and there’s a socially engaged, issue-led drama under the sparkle and pizzazz.

Of course it’s not unprecedented for superficially frivolous musicals to tackle serious issues: Cabaret explored the rise of fascism in Germany. Numerous Bollywood spectaculars have delved into the caste system, and West Side Story deals with the immigrant experience and gang-based tensions. It’s with the latter that In the Heights bears some similarities: both feature Latinx communities; both unfold on the streets of New York City.

But while West Side Story is driven by conflict, at the core of In the Heights is a sentimental hug of neighbourhood unity – Washington Heights against the world, and the double-pronged assault of gentrification and discrimination. It’s from this, and from the engaging cast (Anthony Ramos is a particular delight; Olga Merediz single-handedly shifts the whole film up an emotional notch or 10), that the film derives its inviting warmth.

Ramos plays Usnavi, the central character and the film’s narrator, a bodega worker who dreams of returning to his parents’ Dominican Republic homeland, but whose ties to Washington Heights – and in particular the lovely Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) – are hard to break.

The messaging can be a little on-the-nose at times – a climactic electrical outtage gives the film the opportunity to assert that its characters are not, in fact, powerless. But perhaps a more potent political statement is the way that Christopher Scott’s choreography claims and owns every square inch of the block. Reclaim the streets (with fabulous shoes and glorious Latin dance routines)!

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