Desperate to walk on sunshine? Think of this adaptation of the 2008 Broadway musical as a virtual mini-break. It’s set during a sweltering New York summer and is crammed with shots of an idyllic, Dominican Republic beach. OMG, the water looks nice.
Of course, since the songs and lyrics come courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the story of bodega-owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is about more than escape.
Director Jon M Chu’s last movie was Crazy Rich Asians. This one, set in an impoverished Latino neighbourhood, is a whole different world.
The characters (whether from DR, Cuba, Puerto Rico or Mexico) dream of winning the lottery but can barely afford the spiralling rents in newly-desirable Washington Heights. As the borough suffers blackouts, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the beautiful and creative young woman Usnavi loves, laments that she is “power-less”. Meanwhile politicised teen Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) raps that racism’s gone from “latent to blatant” and middle-aged hairdresser Daniela (the stupendously vivacious Daphne Rubin-Vega) points out, “our people survived slave ships!”
There’s even a nod to the Bronx-born, ground-breaking Justice of the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. In The Heights was thought up long before Hamilton, but its liberal credentials are just as in your face (though Miranda recently apologised for the lack of visible Afro-Latino characters).
Personally, I can’t resist a song (the title number In the Heights) that skips from Cole Porter to condoms, or an Esther Williams-style extravaganza that takes place in a teeming municipal pool.
And most of the performances are incredibly stirring. Cuban matriarch Claudia is played by Olga Merediz, whose voice makes you want to cry an ocean. Marc Anthony, as Usnavi’s dead-beat cousin, has eyes like two dark and endless tunnels. And Miranda himself (pushing an ice cart) looks touchingly knackered.
Of the perky youngsters, Ramos, Corey Hawkins (as Benny, Usnavi’s Black best friend) and Leslie Grace (as college girl Nina, the pride and joy of the community) are the standouts.
Some of the CGI work is a little too glossy, and the plot, it must be said, doesn’t always make sense. We’re asked to pay attention to a series of transactions concerning property, lottery tickets and a court case. These sums just don’t add up.
Fans of the stage production will also note that Vanessa’s alcoholic mother has disappeared, and that Nina’s racist dad is now all pride and no prejudice. A decision has clearly been made not to diss the “neighbourhood”. This Washington Heights is so functional you half expect Mickey and Minnie Mouse to pop up in the dance scenes.
But it’s so refreshing to watch an inner city narrative that’s not dominated by snarling gangsters or guns. And it’s brave to introduce a sub-plot about an undocumented worker. The film ain’t short (143 minutes) and it would have been easy, and less financially risky, to trim that storyline.
In a key scene, Claudia says her mum, who scrubbed floors for a living, wore velvet gloves to hide the cracks on her hands. Chu and Miranda respect immigrants who don’t want to take the gloves off, even as they themselves opt for a mish-mash of glamour and grit.
In the Heights isn’t in the same league as Hamilton. Nevertheless, it’s a gorgeous tribute to Black and Hispanic power. What a trip.
Cert PG-13, 143mins. In cinemas