Film review of In the Heights, the musical about life and love in the New York City community of Washington Heights. Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera and directed by Jon M. Chu.
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It’s a sweltering summer in the Washington Heights district of New York and, in the run up to a days long power blackout in the area, we follow some of their stories. Nina (Leslie Grace) returns home after facing multiple instances of race prejudice at the elite Stanford University, much to the consternation of her father (Jimmy Smits). Her friend Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is looking to move to a more salubrious part of the city to start a new career as a fashion designer, at the same time Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) shows a clumsy romantic interest in her.
Watching all of this is the kindly Claudia (Olga Merediz), the adoptive mother to many in Washington Heights.
Review, by @ReelReviewer and @win_hughes
When I saw the trailer for this colourful, vibrant, unapologetically upbeat musical – based on the stage version by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, Mary Poppins Returns) – I thought it was Steven Spielberg’s hotly anticipated remake of West Side Story.
After all they are both set in New York (although in different districts), contain two romantic stories and involve characters from the Latino community.
Well, I was wrong and the last point reveals my cultural ignorance as In the Heights focuses on what is actually termed the Latinx (pronounced luh-teen-x) community, something that has generated a few grumblings in terms of how representative it is of the diaspora of Washington Heights.
I consider myself a bit more educated about all of this now, but I don’t entirely agree with some of the criticisms of this movie.
Washington Heights contains a broad mix of ethnicities with varying skin tones. Commentators and audiences have pointed out the film appears to be ‘colourist’, as the movie (from their perspective) focuses on characters who have lighter coloured skin.
There’s more about that in this Independent article which got me thinking about how those commentators – while having every right to feel what they want after seeing a movie – might be missing something.
If In the Heights is seen as a film that heralds a brace of new movies focusing on the Latinx community, previously missed/marginalised/misrepresented by cinema, why not embrace it for what it is, a movie that kicks off what could be a film revolution. It seems early in the day to slate the inaugural piece for not adhering to every facet of equality, diversity and inclusion; why not wait a little for further Latinx movies that take a different tack and/or focus on different groups within this community?
And anyway, it’s not as if this movie was ever going to be fully ‘real’. The musical genre does not lend itself to being overly realistic. Like most other musicals, it is wish fulfillment song and dance stuff, hands in the air times, not kitchen sink stuff about what it’s really like living in working class enclaves. It’s Miranda’s love letter to his own bit of the Heights.
Rather than shooting all of that in its metaphorical foot, why not not just enjoy the brilliant dancing and tap your feet to the catchy tunes? Leave reality aside and let the future documentaries, dramas or comedies (that I hope will follow In the Heights) pick that up.
I find musicals a difficult genre to enjoy but the soundtrack here is wonderful, the best number being the ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Know’ sequence in the beauty salon, an up-beat tune and the choreography around the salon is so much fun.
The performances are all charming and engaging. Ramos is a perpetually cheery lead, likewise for Barrera, Grace and, in particular, the fabulous Merediz as the matriarch of the Heights. Her subway life-choice, with gorgeous, graffiti colours – a palate that runs throughout the film’s design – is perfectly judged and moving.
I give the film three stars our of five – meaning it is good and worth watching – not because of its visual or aural quality but because it’s far too long and I found its messages and narrative confusing.
143 minutes is a ridiculous amount of screen time for any movie, unless the name DeMille flashes up as the directorial credit. I can forgive Cecil B for needing to whack on extra minutes but for anyone else stretching over two hours my view is always the same: “It could’ve been a reel or two shorter”. The scenes at Smits’ taxi company for instance; who cares. He made it in business, fine. A few words could sum that up.
As for the story, is it me or is this movie condescending and fatalistic?
The movie encourages the view that if one wishes to move away from their community – either to break into another career or just for a change of scenery – you will be punished for that decision.
Nina went to Stanford University but tells us she was made to feel socially inferior to the point where she had to move back. I don’t deny that this would happen in real-life, but why does Nina only consider a move back home, to the local campus where most Latinx people appear to gravitate? There are others across the states less fussy and prejudiced than the elite unis.
For me the message comes across loud and clear; Nina’s home is the only place she will ever be truly accepted. It’s more than just having her Dad and friends close to her; she has insulted her community by leaving it. After facing wider society’s insults, she must return with her tail between her legs.
Vanessa tries to move out of the Heights because she feels a different zip code means a better shot at becoming a designer. Again, there is an insult and she is made to pay for the slight.
Initially, she finds it difficult to rent an apartment due to her surname but when she gets one, her creative juices suddenly run dry.
Inspiration fails her and it looks like her dream career is over before it’s begun; Vanessa can only achieve her dreams within the firmly demarcated geography of home, her talent vanishes as soon as goes over the line. She is compelled to return to where everything and everyone she could ever want and that matters is. Only then does her ‘power’ return.
The fellas don’t entirely get off scot free either. Usnavi has a long-held dream to return his birthplace the Dominican Republic, a place he has fantasised out of all proportion. This dream is met with light scorn; why does he need to bother as the Heights is a microcosm of the island thanks to the former islanders who surround him and their descendants. Chance (a lottery), whimsy and love mean he never catches his plane.
I might be missing something, but is there a problem with wanting to grow and work, live, love and play outside of the area where you grew up?
It doesn’t make you a snob or someone who is ashamed of their home and pretend to be something else, because pretension and aspiration are different things. But the movie’s message of the inescapable allure and pull of home, like some cultural tractor beam, seems regressive to me.
Now I’m the one who is starting to see this movie for something more than the otherwise fun musical it is. I guess whatever approach the filmmakers took, someone somewhere won’t have liked it; we are all directors in our minds and our cinema seats! But it’ll be interesting to see what the next Latinx-themed/set movies are and the approach their filmmakers take.
Cast & credits
Director: Jon M. Cho. 2hr 23mins/143mins. Warner Bros/5000 Broadway Productions/Likely Story/Scott Sanders Productions. (PG).
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Mara Jacobs, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Scott Sanders.
Writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes.
Camera: Alice Brooks.
Music: Alex Lacamoire, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bill Sherman.
Sets: Nelson Coates, Moin Uddin.
Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Noah Catala, Lin-Manuel Miranda.