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In The Heights movie review: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical soars when it sings, dips when it dances

·6 min read

Language: English

Everyone's a dreamer in In The Heights. Everyone sings about their sueñito or whatever is preventing them from realising it. Obstacles come in all forms: gentrification, rising anti-immigration sentiment and the high cost of higher education. And what better way to forget you're tangled in a cycle of poverty and despair than to sing and dance your woes away? Setting unearned optimism against the cynicism that has plagued a deeply polarised country, Hollywood seduces us with a manufactured fiction entirely its own. Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway love letter to Manhattan's Washington Heights, Latinidad and all the dreamers is now a movie.

The film's director Jon M Chu has mastered the art of what Frank Bergon described as "sincere inauthenticity." He did it with Crazy Rich Asians, presenting a sanitised version of Singapore without looking underneath its manicured facade. Populating the movie almost entirely with the good-looking ensured it was a saleable commodity across the globe. He does the same with In The Heights, a rose-coloured pop music video about a close-knit community who remain upbeat even while facing threats of displacement and forced repatriation.

The barrio comes alive with Miranda's lilting mash-up of showtune, hip-hop, and Latin American traditions. And the film abridges the distinctly Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban song-and-dance forms like the studio has given Chu a checklist to tick off. Merengue - check. Bolero - check. Salsa - check. Harmonising to its rhythms are the daily trials and tribulations of the Heights hoi polloi.

Benny, Sonny and Usnavi at the bodega
Benny, Sonny and Usnavi at the bodega

Benny, Sonny and Usnavi at the bodega

The bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) acts as our barrio guide. Having given up on the American Dream, Usnavi's sueñito is to move back to the Dominican Republic, where he hopes to reopen his late father's beachside bar. The film opens in a beachside setting, where Usnavi is recounting a feature-length story of "How I Met Your Mother" to a group of curious kids. Along with café con leche and lottery tickets, he serves up verses, introducing us to all the notable regulars and dreamers who come into the bodega. By his side is teenaged cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), an undocumented immigrant hoping to get a green card so he can go to college.

College life isn't all that the pride-of-the-barrio Nina (Leslie Grace) imagined it to be. Homesick, she wants to drop out of Stanford much to the dismay of her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who is ready to sell his cab company to fund her tuition costs. In love with Nina is Usnavi's best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works as a dispatcher at Kevin's company. Usnavi meanwhile not-so-secretly pines for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a beautician who dreams of becoming a fashion designer but doesn't have the credit rating to rent an apartment downtown. She works in the salon run by Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), with help from Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco). It is the barrio gossip central, which is forced to relocate to Bronx with rents rising in Washington Heights. Rounding out the regulars is "Abuela" Claudia (Olga Merediz), who is something of a grandmother figure to the entire barrio.

These are people simply trying to build better lives for their children, while keeping their businesses afloat. Towering in the background is the George Washington Bridge, a literalised metaphor for escape and upward mobility. The community cauldron reaches boiling point during a blackout. Tragedy strikes. Then, the whole thing is resolved with a lover's kiss and a lottery ticket.

Still from In The Heights
Still from In The Heights

Still from In The Heights

When a sense of reality begins to creep in, Chu offers a musical number to escape from it. The block party anthem "96,000" instils a personality to these dreamers, who all imagine what they would do if they won the lottery. Vanessa: "Get a nice studio, I'll get out of the barrio." Sonny: "cash my ticket and picket, invest in protest." The colourful celebrations however drown out any pointed political critique. In the collective dreaming, this big ensemble number captures the closeness of this community. But Chu's quick cuts disrupt the flowing choreography. Before you can truly take in an painstakingly synchronised segment to its completion, he cuts to the next. The overhead shots too flatten the dynamics, and end up distancing the viewer.

Dancing itself is one of the movie's more glaring missteps. With simple tilts and pans of the Technicolor camera, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger followed Moira Shearer in the 17-minute ballet centrepiece of The Red Shoes. And it's pure cinema magic. No gravity-defying trickery can match up to the infectious energy Gaspar Noé brings to the choreographed chaos of Climax. The cinematography and choreography don't quite work hand-in-hand to the same effect in In The Heights. For starters, Chu lacks understanding on how to use dance as a corporeal expression of subjectivity, never mind how to leverage the contours of the human body to its aesthetic potential.

On returning home, Nina, closing her eyes, says, "Let me listen to my block." Do listen in. It is the sound of actors flexing their chords to the max. It is song shaping dialogue, and dialogue ceding the floor to dancing. Each actor attempts to situate the character's intersectional identity through musicality. Ramos and Grace, in particular, make it seem like breaking into song and dance is the most natural form of articulation. The camera follows these actors as they sway and strut their way through the neighbourhood like it's an entirely normal thing to do.

Though the movie dips when its dances, it does occasionally soar when it sings, hitting a peak with Merediz's dreamy rendition of "Paciencia y Fe." But most of these songs aren't the foot-tappable and hummable kind. If the success of a musical is measured on those rudimentary charms, In The Heights fails on both counts. That's a poor marker for its longevity.

A lot of the criticism has mostly been aimed at how the movie whitewashes Washington Heights even as it celebrates it. The neighbourhood's majority is made up of Black Latinx people. Yet, they are the minority in the movie, its own majority made up of light-skinned or white-passing Latinx actors. Crazy Rich Asians had a similar issue. The brown minorities of Singapore existed entirely in the fringes.

Be that as it may, In the Heights still serves as a clarion call to the power of the entire community. It suggests an individual's success depends on the whole barrio's. Don't mistake it for socialist fervour though. The film is still rooted in incurably American traditions. Intimacy is established via product placement, as flirting happens with Tide-To-Go pens. If only they could be used to erase all the film's missteps?

In the Heights is streaming on BookMyShow Stream.

Rating: 2.5

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