In the Heights, review: the all-singing, all-dancing, feelgood film of the summer
Dir: Jon M Chu. Starring: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Stephanie Beatriz, Lin-Manuel Miranda. PG cert, 143 mins
It often feels these days that major studio films have been made with an ulterior motive: there’s always a franchise to sustain, a contract to honour, a brand to burnish. In that respect, among others, In the Heights is something of a throwback. Jon M Chu’s film doesn’t have a beady eye trained on a sequel, or a stockpile of merchandise to flog. To paraphrase A Midsummer Night’s Dream – or, if you’d rather, Billy Butlin – its true intent is all for your delight. A joyous, expansive, sparklingly sung and danced adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical that isn’t Hamilton, it is the best reason yet to reconnect with your local cinema when it arrives in the UK next week.
Could it be the film of the summer? Even in early June, its claim to the title already looks unimpeachable, not least because it feels like summer on film – the thing radiates Factor 50 good vibes, and boasts a cast so preposterously attractive, and with such sweltering chemistry, that a couple of hours in their company may make you feel as if you’ve had a holiday fling by osmosis.
Which heights, though? That would be Washington Heights, a bustling Hispanic enclave nine stops north on the New York City subway from the streets where the Sharks and the Jets crossed switchblades in West Side Story 60 years beforehand. (It will be intriguing to see how Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming adaptation of that Broadway musical plays in light of this one.) The place has been a home since childhood to Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), an immigrant orphan from the Dominican Republic with a Gene Kelly twinkle, who dreams of swapping his cluttered bodega for his father’s old beachside bar in the country of his birth.
Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the object of Usnavi’s thus-far-unreciprocated affections, has also set her heart on escape, although she only wants to make it as far as downtown, where she can pursue a career in fashion, and break away from the raucous local beauty salon where she cuts hair and paints nails. Meanwhile, Nina (Leslie Grace) has already made what seems to be a perfect getaway: she’s a student at Stanford University, much to the pride of her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), a local minicab operator whose own dreams are tied up in his daughter’s future success. But at this very august, very rich, very white institution, she feels like an interloper, and on returning home and being reunited with her sometime-paramour Benny (Corey Hawkins), it emerges that her own ambitions have shifted.
Quiara Alegría Hudes’s screenplay, adapted from her original book for Miranda’s musical, uses these stories to explore the tug of love and loyalty that’s an intrinsic part of the immigrant experience. Do these people belong where they began, or where they’re trying to reach, or elsewhere, or nowhere at all by dint of having moved in the first place? This theme is a seam through American cinema, and In the Heights suggests the musical might be the ideal medium to make sense of it – or this musical, at least, as Miranda’s catalogue of songs blend salsa, hip-hop, merengue, soul and show tunes into an irresistible stew of sound that makes the very notion of neat cultural delineations seem ridiculous. (Miranda himself has a cameo as a piragüero, or shaved ice vendor.)