In The Heights review: A feel-good musical about the dreams of immigrants

Length: 143 minutes
Director: Jon M. Chu
Writer: Screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the musical stage play, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Hudes and concept by Miranda
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Jimmy Smits

In theatres 8 July (Singapore)

4.5 out of 5 stars

Jon M. Chu's In The Heights, originally scheduled for a 2020 release, is finally hitting theatres after pandemic-induced delays. The movie will stream on HBO Max in the US from 11 June before rolling out to wherever cinemas are open during the pandemic.

It's not a coincidence that Chu's adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit Broadway musical is his feature film follow-up to Crazy Rich Asians – the director started both projects at around the same time and In The Heights carries on the theme about the experiences of immigrants. Chu said in a Yahoo! interview that he thinks of In The Heights as a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) in In The Heights. (Still courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) in In The Heights. (Still courtesy of Warner Bros.)

It's clear that the Asian American filmmaker knows how to tell minority stories in an authentic way. In The Heights, centred on several characters in the predominantly Dominican neighbourhood of Washington Heights in New York, is a joyous and heartfelt celebration of the Latin American community. The Broadway show's creator, Miranda, who makes cameos in the film as a piragua (a shaved ice dessert) pushcart vendor, is himself of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent.

The movie's runtime might feel a bit too long for some – a theatre musical would normally have an intermission – but that's a function of the film lovingly fleshing out the stories of quite a few characters young and old.

Among others, there's Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner who dreams of returning to his roots in the Dominican Republic to set up a beachside cafe; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of escaping the neighbourhood to be a fashion designer; Nina (Leslie Grace), who's a straight A's Stanford student but wants to drop out because she doesn't fit into the elite culture; and Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the unofficial elderly matriarch of the community.

The pool scene for the song
A fully choreographed musical piece inside a pool. Because why not? (Still courtesy of Warner Bros.)

There's a subplot about a street protest for immigrant "dreamers" which was meant to speak directly to Trump-era politics in the US, which would have resonated more during the film's intended release in 2020 before the anti-immigrant president stepped down; however, it still works to reflect the hopes and dreams of the community.

Chu makes maximal use of the medium of film to create interesting set pieces that wouldn't be possible on a musical stage. The upbeat "96000" treats us to a fully choreographed army of summer revellers dancing and singing inside a pool. The young couple in love, Nina and Benny, perform a gravity-defying, visually stunning duet on the facade of a building to "When the Sun Goes Down". This is definitely one for lovers of feel-good musicals.

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