There is a subtle reference to It’s a Wonderful Life towards the end of In the Heights that tells you everything you need to know about the life-affirming mood of the film. The reference is to the ending, where George Bailey runs through Bedford Falls, thrilled to be alive, with so many friends and family. That same exuberance and joy of living runs throughout In the Heights, the latest musical tale from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Strictly speaking, In the Heights pre-dates Hamilton by around seven years. The multiple Tony-award-winning stage show debuted on Broadway in 2008, but the movie version is this summer’s most uplifting release. This all-singing, all-dancing slice of New York life will be a welcome alternative for the long-suffering partners of football fans who are spending their summer watching TV and sports betting online [valid where legal] with the Euro2020 tournament.
Welcome to the neighbourhood
The story follows the residents of Washington Heights, a Latino suburb in the north of New York, as they face up to the challenges of love and life, blackouts and a neighbourhood that seems to be losing its once-rich character. You do need to concentrate at the start to understand who is related to who, who is working for who and who is romantically interested in who. However, once you’ve got that straight, you can simply sit back and let the good feelings wash over you.
The feel good film of the summer
In the Heights is vivid and vibrant, even when it is dealing with some of the darker issues like economic decline and the lack of opportunities for Latinos. Everything is put to music with Miranda’s trademark rap-like vocals bringing the story to life. As with Hamilton, there are no ear-worm songs you’ll come out of the theatre singing. Nonetheless, Shakespeare himself would be proud of the whip-smart dialogue, creative rhymes and ability to capture the most complex of emotions in the simplest turn of phrase.
The film is superbly cast, especially Anthony Ramos in the lead. He has big shoes to fill, stepping into his Hamilton co-star’s Broadway role, but he carries it off with charm and flair. Stepping down from the lead, as he considered himself too old to play the hero, Miranda contents himself with a cameo role (as well as writing the music and lyrics and producing the film). It’s also fun to spot how many of the cast have made the short trip up the I-278 from Brooklyn 99. Alongside Stephanie Beatriz, who played Rosa Diaz, we have Jimmy Smits (Amy Santiago’s dad, Victor), Olga Merediz (Rosa’s mum, Julia) and of course Miranda himself, who plays Amy’s over-achieving brother, David.
An enchanting experience
In the Heights combines the big production numbers of films like Disney’s Enchanted or Miranda’s last screen outing, Mary Poppins Returns, with the urban reality of West Side Story and the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet. And while it ticks all these boxes, it remains fresh and contemporary, dealing with issues that are as relevant now as they were when it was created over a decade ago. Yet the complex plot never weighs down the film, which trips along lightly on the energy of its dancers and the wide smiles of its likeable young stars.
This is the film we all need right now, to raise our spirits after such a testing time. It may be a touch too long, with one too many set pieces, and some may find the whole thing irritatingly upbeat, but you’d have to be a real cynic not to emerge from the cinema with a big beaming smile on your face.
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