Let’s talk about In The Heights.
Hamilton is probably one of the most popular Broadway musicals ever. Back when theatres were open, the various productions around the world were selling out and the songs continued to get more popular the longer the show ran. And when theatre was shut down due to the pandemic, Hamilton managed to some how get more popular when it was released on Disney Plus. That’s staggering considering the rest of theatre was struggling to an extent that it’s turning Andrew Lloyd Webber into a resistance fighter. It has also made Lin Manuel Miranda into a star. He is now a household name thanks to Hamilton and has become a regular with Disney which means he has a licence to print money. It also gives him enough sway to bring the musical he did before Hamilton to the big screen. That is In The Heights.
Anthony Ramos is a Dominican immigrant in Washington Heights who runs a small store. He dreams of returning to the island and rebuilding the bar his dad used to run on the beach. He gets everything together and ready to go, but before he does he realises that his friends have their own dreams which they also want to make come true.
If you are coming to this as a Hamilton fan, you’ll find plenty to be familiar with even if the setting changes from colonial USA to modern day ‘Nueva York’. The music may have a lot of influence from the Hispanic community but overall, it’s the same sort of thing you get from the Broadway show. The men rap, with some doing it very quickly, and the women mostly sing very sweetly, then blow you away with power when you least expect it. Miranda certainly had a style he liked to stick to when writing these musicals. It does mean that despite the very different story and subject matter, those who are coming in sight unseen about this musical but are familiar with Hamilton will find it pretty easy to settle in.
When you do settle into Washington Heights, what you get is a very vibrant musical. Vibrance and energy are the key words here. The songs and sequences have so much pep in their step that you can’t help but get sucked in and enjoying it all. The characters don’t have an insane amount of depth but they all feel very real even if they do the musical thing of just bursting out into song in the middle of the street. They also have the superpower to get a group of people to do a very impressive dance number with them completely impromptu, which is a nice thing to have. The characters all feel unique as well and in general are just enjoyable to be around. I like the fact they resist the idea of having a villain too. It would have been very easy for them to get a cookie cutter villain considering the themes of the film like an immigration officer or a gentrifying hipster who presumably sings about the joys of $10 iced mocha lattes, but they don’t because the film doesn’t need one. The only villains are the obstacles in the way of the characters achieving their dreams.
There are two big things going on in this movie. There is trying to achieve your dream in a world where it is very tough to do so and also trying to get through adversity. Usnavi is definitely the lead in this film but there is a clear argument that this is actually an ensemble piece. Nina’s story of coming back to familiarity after struggling with her first year at Stanford does not intersect with Usnavi’s story of preparing to move on so he could achieve his dream. But it is a very good B-Story which thematically links with what is happening with Usnavi and it neither plot distracts from the other. It helps that both strands have great songs and performances which mean you never dread when the other characters crop up like I’ve seen in some other films which have a similar plot structure.
It’s one of those films that is just effortlessly good which is irritating as they are hardest films to write about. The greatest strength it has is that it just puts a big smile on your face. The songs are designed to put you in a good mood, even the more sombre and thoughtful ballad types don’t get you out of the party fever the film puts you in. Despite being a decent length, the film never really feels like it other than perhaps a slow part coming out of the black out. You’ll see that it is right the film slows down there, but it’s the only part where you feel the momentum has been lost. Thankfully, it soon finds it again by going right into the final third with plenty of vigour. You cannot fail to enjoy this movie.
It does have a couple of issues which do include that lost of momentum when the film is switching gears ahead of the finale. It feels like some of the threads are underdeveloped, with the gentrification one feeling particularly apparent in this. There is this undercurrent that the citizens of Washington Heights are slowly being forced out by increasingly high rents and new businesses which are too costly for the locals are moving in. Other than a salon moving sticks and it helping resolve another plot thread, nothing really comes of it other than the general we will overcome any adversity theme that the film pushes. I think this is a deliberate choice as they want to avoid that idea that every problem has been completely resolved but if you contrast that with the illegal immigration plotline which they make a much more obvious point of it not being resolved, it does feel a bit forgotten compared to the rest of the plots and themes.
A lot of critics have described In The Heights as the perfect post-pandemic movie. A big party film that puts a smile on your face and just makes you feel good inside. I wish I could be original but I can’t because those critics are correct. After what has been a miserable 15 months, and that misery looks set to continue for many, a film like this is the perfect tonic. It’s also a tremendous celebration of the Hispanic community who have suffered for far longer than just this pandemic with everything that has been happening in America. If you want to get away from the football and have a party in the streets of New York, welcome to Washington Heights.