Lin-Manuel Miranda musical In the Heights explodes with imagination
It’s rare these days that a musical sweeps you off your feet. Most are overproduced, overthought, bloated messes that err too deeply into twisted off-key naturalism or fall off into an incoherent “more is more” ethos that leaves you craving the stark minimalism of a cold, white room. What a surprise, then, that In the Heights, the adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular Broadway hit (itself an adaptation of a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes), strikes all the right notes.
Under the direction of Jon M. Chu, the film immediately finds its rhythm. The ebbs and flow of song and character guide the internal logic of the editing and perspective. It’s a film that invites you inside its world and gives you little choice but to be completely swept away.
In the Heights centres on the fundamental struggle of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner torn between retiring early to the Dominican Republic or staying in Washington Heights, a neighbourhood increasingly threatened by gentrification. Throughout a sweltering summer, we’re introduced to a community torn by social change. While Usnavi provides the glue to tie everyone together, this film is unquestionably about the collective. It is both a tribute and a rallying cry to a neighbourhood under fire from big money and the systems that drive marginalized groups further to the margins.
In all those complex and often daunting subjects, though, the musical prioritizes small joys and passions. Most characters are introduced feet-first, their shoes a calling card for their personality. Every character has their own “little dream” that guides them through life and film. It’s a movie that explodes with imagination and potential.
Chu’s skilled direction leans deeply into the inherent fantasy of the musical genre. It features fourth-wall breaks, living mannequins and gravity-defying dancing. His experience directing Step Up movies gives him a unique and privileged position to direct dance sequences with the same gusto and skill as his approach to more dialogue and singing-oriented scenes. Instinctively his direction and editing prioritize performance above nearly all else. We’re allowed to watch bodies in motion, drawing us into the emotional and expressive worlds forged by the choreography.
Lin-Manuel Miranda plays a small role in In the Heights
This also allows even minor characters to rise to the surface. In the Heights features an all-star cast, and each character has an arc and a motivation. It’s a film and a musical with an innate love for the community it depicts, with all its nuances and internal conflicts. While every character gets their moment, there’s no denying that Ramos holds it all together. Anthony Ramos seems destined to be one of the greatest stars of his generation. He’s not only bursting with talent but has an arresting smile and presence. He puts the audience at ease without placating them. Every line and every gesture feels utterly spontaneous. He’s a force to be reckoned with.
One of the other reasons this adaptation works so well has to do with sound design. Chu draws on ideas presented in Miranda’s writing that suggest that the “noise” of the city takes on musical qualities when you’re hit with the right combination of love and longing. The sound is never accidental and always has a sense of contributing to the inner workings of the film at large. The sound is counterbalanced by extremely effective silences, which create highs and lows and emphasize particular moments and characters. It’s a film that asks what a neighbourhood sounds like and underscores that the demand from gentrifiers for “quiet” doesn’t just drown out honking cars; it silences laughter, joy and even dissent. The beauty of In the Heights, though, is that these ideas aren’t necessarily spelt out. It often lets the viewer get in tune with the intimacies of what is being lost as the neighbourhood splits apart.
Most importantly, the songs are catchy and varied. There are ups and downs and different genres and styles showcase different elements of musical storytelling. Big set-pieces (such as the incredible performance of “96,000” at the city pool) are balanced out by quieter, more restrained songs, as the inner workings of community work into the inner worlds of the characters themselves. In spite of the film’s length, it’s difficult to imagine removing or cutting down a single moment. Every song and every gesture feels like it’s there for a reason.
In the Heights is a powerful and joyful film that brims with love. It’s a fantastic experience that celebrates community and solidarity in a time when it’s sorely needed. It’s a film that captures the feeling of an endless summer that seems gone a little too fast. It captures the beauty of frivolity and finds dignity in the details. Above all else, it’s a film about dreams big and small. ■
In the Heights opens in Montreal theatres and on Premium VOD on Friday, June 11. Watch the trailer here:
In the Heights starring Anthony Ramos, directed by Jon M. Chu
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